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Correspondent SALLY CHIWAMA with Lys Anzia – WNN Features
Kapenda Buyamba was only a small six yr. old child during the early days of the bloody civil war in the DRC (Democratic Republic of Congo) in 1998. Today, Kapenda is only 16 years old, but she has already been married for three years.
As if that is not enough, Kapenda is pregnant and expecting her second baby. Her first child is two and half years old.
A 2007 Population Reference Bureau data reports that the current average life expectancy in Zambia is 38. Forty-six per cent of the population in Zambia is now under the age of 15. Thirty-five per cent of all girls in Zambia give birth before the age of 18.
These are sobering statistics for one of the most vulnerable part of the refugee population in Zambia – its child-brides.
Today, many refugee child-brides are looking to the future as they sort through choices that will affect the exact home-base location for them and their children for years to come. Just children themselves, these young mothers are facing endless adult decisions. One of them, is where to spend the rest of their lives.
According to a 2007 report by the UNHCR – the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, more than 400,000 Congolese refugees are still living in exile in countries surrounding the DRC. A volunteer repatriation program by the UNHCR was begun on May 2007 to bring Congolese refugees home over a three-year period, but conditions inside the Democratic Republic of Congo may not be safe for women to return.
Kapenda Buyamba, who lives today at the Mwange Refugee Camp in Zambia, is just taking each day one day at a time. She says she got married at the tender age of thirteen and a half after being impregnated by a boy who is now her husband. As a teenage refugee girl from a war-torn nation, Kapenda says that life in the camp today leaves her “not much to do.” But family responsibilities fill her daily routine. At the camp there is little food for her family so Kapenda has had to fend for herself.
The Mwange Refugee Camp, near the northern border of Zambia, was established in 1999 as a refuge for people who fled the often fierce fighting between government and rebel forces in the Democratic Republic of Congo. This refuge has been especially important to women and their children. Even as recent as 2007, reports of terrible sex-crime atrocities against women inside the Democratic Republic of Congo continue.
After being invited by the DRC government to come and observe in 2007, UN Special Rapporteur on Women and Violence, Dr. Yakin Erturk, reported (in July) that the actions of rebel factions inside the South Kivu Province areas “requires immediate action.” In the first six months of 2007 alone, over 4,500 sexual violence cases have been documented by the DRC government, UN and civil society organizations.
According to Doctors Without Borders, the North Kivu Province of the Democratic Republic of Congo has been host to intense violence since August 2007. With little security measures in place, Doctors Without Borders has declared that the Kivu region of the DRC is now under a “permanent state of emergency.”
“Violence against women seems to be perceived by large sectors of society to be normal (in the DRC),” said Dr. Erturk in her recent UN report. The extent of sexual violence against women includes “unimaginable brutality,” said Erturk as she described sexual crimes perpetrated by DRC rebel factions, Congolese security/police forces and even former militiamen in the DRC. Specific actions of violence against women cited by Dr. Erturk include the atrocities of gang rape, sexual torture before family witnesses and even forced cannibalism.
With cooperation of Zambian Ministry of Home Affairs and a commitment by the UNHCR to protect and educate refugee girls, the Congolese refugee women in Zambia are pushing forward in spite of all odds to re-establish and re-heal their own society. Some girls are wishing to return home while many others definitely do not.
Kapenda is not ashamed today to say that she is attending first grade at the Mwange camp. “Nimeowa nilikuwa na myaka kumi na tatu — I got married when I was 13 years old,” she said in Kiswahili, explaining the clear facts of life.
Today, exact figures with the numbers of early marriages in the Mwange camp are difficult to obtain, as so many camp marriages go unregistered and are deemed unofficial. Kapenda Buyamba is probably one of the many girls whose marriage will never be documented anywhere.
In facing the ongoing challenges of Congolese child-brides, sexual and gender based violence has been an issue for discussion at the Zambian refugee camps. Namanda Mateele, Project Manager for HODI — a non-governmental Zambian organization that works to insure food for women at the Mwange Refugee Camp — says that her work in the camp also focuses on issues of sexual and gender based violence (SGBV). Thanks to the combined efforts of UNHCR in cooperation with Zambian officials and society organizations, a 50% reduction in the occurrence of SGBV in the refugee camps has been observed for the year 2007.
“Our organization also addresses issues such as early marriage, rape and gender based violence among the refugee community,” said Namanda Mateel. “We have formed an SGBV youth group with 56 girls and boys after we realized that there was a lot of sex happening among the adolescents.” Mateel added that youths attending the youth groups are encouraged to put their education ahead of anything else at the camp. “One of the most important tasks is to try to convince the girls that have fallen pregnant to go back to school,” she said.
The tenants of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) outline clearly that preventing “too early” marriage is part of a broader approach of building a “protective environment” for children. This tenant is now being encouraged at the Mwange Refugee Camp. This policy in discouraging sexual relationships between children too young also aims to shelter children from further types of exploitation.
From its beginning in 1989, the CRC outlined four basic rights for all refugee children. They are: the right to survival; the right to develop to the fullest; the right to be protected from harmful influences, abuse and exploitation and the right to participate fully in family, cultural and social life.
Two young girls who were raped in the DRC. It is not permitted to show the faces of these young girls.
The Convention on the Rights of the Child is the most comprehensive international instrument that exists today for the definition and enforcement of human rights of children in refugee camps. It is the only international human rights instrument that consistently uses both masculine and feminine pronouns throughout and makes it explicit that the rights contained therein apply equally to all female and male children.
In great contrast to life in the camp, many current conditions today in the DRC are extremely dangerous for women and children. “Nothing (in North Kivu) has improved for people, who continue to flee the violence. The displaced persons often stay close to the area where they live because they continue to hope to return home. They might be two hours walk from home, but are attacked on the roads and in the fields. Rape victims are often attacked while working in or returning from the fields,” recently said Romain Gitenet, Head of Doctors Without Borders, as he worked from an area inside the DRC.
“Nime furahi sana, kurudi kwa shule (Am very happy to come back to school),” said Mitwelle Mwelu, a 12th grade pupil from Mwange Refugee Camp who is married with three children and who also decided to go back to school. Mwelu says she is very happy now writing for her final exams. When she finishes high school she will also be able to work. She says that her husband encourages her to work hard on her studies as he is a teacher at her school.
According to the UNHCR, many girls today are caught in the stigmatization of their society’s inferior views. They rarely have the opportunity to express their own concerns, let alone have their own views taken into account. Many girls are also deprived of their inheritance rights, dragged into early or forced marriages or forced to suffer under many family obligations.
In certain cases, Congolese refugee girls may become targets of sexual predators. Or they become victims of trafficking as they are exploited in the sex-trade and labor markets. The dangers of staying in the camp, though, are small in comparison to the current critical danger of violence for girls on returning to areas like the Kivu Province.
Zambia is currently hosting approx 113,000 refugees. The UNHCR states that, “In any refugee population, approximately 50% of the uprooted people are women and girls. Stripped of the protection of their homes, their government and often their family structure, females are often particularly vulnerable. They face the rigors of long journeys into exile, official harassment or indifference and frequent sexual abuse even after reaching an apparent place of safety. Women must cope with these threats while being nurse, teacher, breadwinner and physical protector of their families.”
Over the past seven years, refugee women worldwide have escaped from areas of war in Angola, Rwanda, Burundi, Somalia and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Today, close to 18,000 Congolese refugees are living in the Mwange refugee camp situated 35 kilometers Southwest of Mporokoso District.
The Democratic Republic of the Congo is entering a moment of hope after suffering from one of the bloodiest conflicts of the last half century. Four million people have died since 1998 and 1.5 million people remain displaced from their homes today. As refugees return to the DRC from camps in surrounding areas, they face many difficult situations.
Additional sources for this article include IRIN Africa, Doctors Without Borders, The Post – Zambia, UN Press News, Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, ReliefWeb, UN Radio, Reuters Alertnet, PRB- Population Reference Bureau Report 2007, UNFPA – United Nations Population Fund, Center for HIV Information – University of California, UNHCR – the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and The 2007 DRC Country Report of Special Rapporteur — Dr. Yakin Erturk.
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