At first sight the group of children playing in a shaded courtyard in Cote d’Ivoire’s economic capital Abidjan seem carefree. But when a defunct car exhaust blasts, they tremble. When a soldier walks past, they shudder. And they become anxious when an unknown adult approaches them.
Almost a year after the West African nation was shaken by six months of violence and terror when former president Laurent Gbagbo refused to cede power to Alassane Ouattara who won the November 2010 presidential elections, Ivorian children are still trying to recover from the psychological and social trauma the unrest caused them.
'Children were major victims of the post-electoral violence. Many heard gunfire and shelling, saw people running, saw adults afraid and witnessed brutalities, fighting and killings,' says Désiré Koukoui, the director of the International Catholic Children’s Office (BICE) in Abidjan, an organisation protecting children’s rights.
Children had to fear for their lives, deal with the death of family members, hunger and displacement during the country’s violent unrest, which lasted from December 2010 until May 2011. Thousands were separated from their parents during the chaos. Many found themselves suddenly alone in the metropolis of Abidjan, forced to sleep in the street, beg, steal, work or sell their bodies to survive.
'We are concerned that, if we don’t swiftly implement mechanisms to ‘repair’ the situation, to re- socialise children and families, we will be faced with a whole generation of problem cases in a few years from now, with a generation of young adults without a future,' warns Koukoui.
A couple of months after the violence, during which 3,000 people were killed and at least half a million displaced, had ebbed down, in July 2011, BICE opened a safe house for separated children. Its staff tries to reunite them with their families, with support from international children’s organisation Save the Children and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF).
According to official U.N. data, 3,700 children were reported separated from their parents during the crisis in Abidjan alone, a city of about five million citizens. But Koukoui believes 'the actual number is much higher; at least 10 times as high because we haven’t been able to even locate the majority of lost children.'
Progress has been slow, because often, parents have been displaced as well, or children are too young or too traumatised to remember their parents’ or villages names. So far, BICE has only managed to trace the families of a good 250 boys and girls. 'We do our best to find families, place children in schools, give them psycho-social counselling, and if all fails, place them in foster care or orphanages,' Koukoui explains.
One of them is 12-year-old Judith* who arrived at the safe house about three months ago. The girl used to live with her aunt and uncle in Yopougon, one of Abidjan’s neighbourhoods most heavily affected by the post-election violence, which has been labelled a pro-Gbagbo area.
Judith’s parents, who live in a small village in the country’s rural north, Benjué, had sent their daughter to the capital in the hope of giving her access to good schooling. But instead, the relatives exploited the girl, forcing her to labour as a domestic worker in their household. When the elections ended in violence, Judith’s uncle, a Gbagbo supporter, fled Abidjan out of fear for his safety.
'After he left, my situation got even worse. From the window, I saw people being killed in the streets. I was very scared. We had nothing to eat, and my aunt let her fear out on me. She beat me a lot,' says Judith who eventually ran away and arrived at the safe house with her face heavily bruised and cuts that will leave lifelong scars.
The girl has also been raped, but for now it remains unclear when the crime occurred and who the perpetrator is, safe house staff say.
'It’s unfortunately a typical story. We have observed a countrywide increase in domestic violence, alcoholism and child abuse due to the conflict,' explains Dalié Privary, the safe house’s programme manager.
After several weeks, the safe house staff eventually managed to locate Judith’s parents but the reunification process is complex and takes time, as aid organisations need to ensure children will be sent back to a safe, healthy family environment.
'We counsel both parents and children before reuniting them, to give the child the best possible future,' explains Save the Children protection programme manager Monique Apie. 'We want to be certain parents are sincere about taking their children back.'
Due to the conflict, which has equally led to trauma and hopelessness in adults, one out of five parents were reluctant to welcome their lost children back into the folds of the family, according to BICE statistics. 'When there’s violent conflict, it’s everyone for themselves, even within families. It’s shocking, but it’s unfortunately true,' says Apie.
Moreover, many parents feel they are unable to take care of their children, since pre-existing high levels of poverty — almost half of Ivorians were living under the poverty line of 1.25 dollars a day — were suddenly combined with large-scale loss of income as hundreds of thousands of families were forced to flee their homes for safety. As a result, the reunification process can take months, even after the parents have been located.
Apart from supporting the family reunification process, UNICEF is hence working on ensuring that maltreated and abused girls and boys have access to child justice. 'We are working with both the justice department and police on child protection issues,' explains UNICEF Cote d’Ivoire deputy country representative Christina de Bruin.
At the moment, few children have the opportunity to access the justice system, which together with the police force came to a standstill during the post-election violence, when Cote d’Ivoire’s army and military opposition forces wracked havoc throughout the country.
'President Ouattara and his government have now indicated their concern about children’s rights, but it will take time to implement new policy decisions,' says de Bruin. Until then, thousands of Ivorian children will remain vulnerable.
*Name changed to protect the identity of the child.
© Inter Press Service (2012) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service
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