Young people in the Republic of Congo formed the shock troops in the country's wars of the 1990s and they still bear the psychological scars of that experience.
"Violence is a recurring phenomenon which, with regard to the young people, has became more pronounced since the end of the civil wars," said Vianney Ngoulou, information officer at ACOLVF, the Congolese association against sexual violence towards women and girls (l'Association congolaise de lutte contre les violences à l'égard des femmes et des filles), said.
Children aged between three and 17 suffered the most, he said, as they experienced sexual violence ranging from incest to rape. This is just one of the social disorders caused by war, Congolese psychologist Buambo-Bamanga said.
During and after the wars, rape was and still is an expression of domination of the strong over the weak, NGOs say. In the RoC, this assumed staggering proportions as illustrated in a survey by the Ministry for the Advancement of Women conducted between July 1999 and June 2001. At least 3,917 females had been raped, of whom 1,507 were younger than 18. ACOLVF said this only provided a partial picture of the scale of the problem, because many girls probably kept quiet about their ordeals.
Another dimension of rape seems to be the class character of the victims. A study of 102 victims of violence at the University of Brazzaville Teaching Hospital by Buambo-Bamanga, head of the obstetric department, found that between 1998 and 2003, most cases of sexual violence were low income earners.
Even after the war sexual violence is rampant. ACOLVF has set up an information bureau in the capital and discovered that from December 2005 to June 2006, 284 acts of violence were perpetrated on female victims, from primary school to university students. Most of the attackers were unknown to their victims and aged between 21 and 35.
Effects of violence
Educational psychologist Constance Mafoukila said the social impact of violence had caused many female students to drop out of school.
"Violence has started to weaken the Congolese educational system, as much as did the civil wars and the socio-economic crises that the country has experienced these past few years," Mafoukila, also a lecturer at the Brazzaville's Marien Ngouabi University, said.
In a study she conducted into the drop in school attendance rates, Mafoukila found that the trend began in 1988: for boys it went from 255,758 that year to 226,700 in 2002; and for girls from 236,385 to 201,035.
Moreover, in the Pool Department, an administrative area in the south of the country, teachers and students abandoned school during the fighting from 1998 to 2002 between the army and so-called Ninja militia. The Pool was the scene of much of the fighting.
In 2003, the Convention for the Reconstruction of Pool was created to attract funds from local authorities and donors to rebuild the area.
In a survey of 15 school districts - 314 establishments in the Pool - of 42,966 pupils listed before the conflict, 32,960 of them were not present after hostilities ended. Similarly, of the 2,004 teachers assigned to schools, just 593 of them could accomplish their teaching duties. This has left many children vulnerable.
|Children in the Pool area of the Republic of Congo, 2004. Children representing the country's 11 departments have been allowed to represent their peers and speak about their needs in the national parliament|
"The young children who gave up school because of violence have become more dangerous to society. They are idle and consume large quantities of narcotics," Ngoulou said.
The country was one of the Francophone African nations that had made the most progress in education in the immediate post-independence era. School attendance has declined from almost 100 percent before the war to less than 75 percent now. The war destroyed school buildings and caused the massive movement of pupils, who later showed no interest in returning to class.
In rural areas, fewer girls go to school and drop out earlier. According to the UN children’s fund (UNICEF), the school system, in particular at the primary level, cannot absorb the number of potential pupils. Moreover, 20 percent of children are not recorded on their parents' marriage certificates, meaning their birth dates are not posted. This document is required for school registration.
Violence in detention
Young people are subject to violence in prison. Evidence of this is supported in a survey conducted by UNICEF and the Ministry of Justice and Human Rights in 2004 on "The Evaluation of the Justice for Minors in Congo".
Completed in December 2005, it showed that most police and prison officials are ignorant of the treaties protecting the rights of children, particularly those in detention.
"During their arrest and while in police custody children experience violence. In addition, some are held beyond the legal maximum 72-hour detention limit and are kept in the same cells as adults," according to the investigation.
Children are not always told of their rights when arrested and are sent to prison without their parents’ knowledge. While in detention, said the report, they are not allowed exercise or provided with social, educational or psychological support.
To defend their rights and protect themselves from violence and other abuse, children representing the country's 11 departments have since 2004 been allowed to lobby in parliament - under the supervision of the Ministry for Social Affairs. As a group, they form a Children's Parliament where they plead for improved conditions. The ill-treatment of children and violation of their rights is blamed on a social culture of silence, especially when abuses take place in the family environment.
Ngoulou sees impunity as the foremost cause of violence. ACOLVF said from 1 January 1 to 30 June 2006 just 29 rape cases were sent from Brazzaville's central police station to court. This, he said, reflected the fact that most rape cases went unpunished, as victims, too poor to hire lawyers, tended to settle matters out of court for cash.
Expunging youth violence from society may be a long and seemingly disheartening challenge, but a short-term start in the process could be made by opening trade schools for the country's army of unemployed youth. In addition, the children's parliament could go a long way in influencing legislation that will protect the youth and give them hope for a more secure existence.
[This article is part of a special IRIN series that looks at how conflict, poverty and social alienation are affecting the lives of children and teenagers. Read more: Youth in crisis: coming of age in the 21st century]