GOMA, Democratic Republic of the Congo (June 5, 2012) — When gunfire began in Bihambwe, Tuisenge had no choice but flee.
By the end of April, fights had broken out between the Congolese military and armed opposition groups in the eastern Masisi Territory, forcing thousands of people to flee. Some joined camps for internally displaced people (IDP) like the camp in Mugunga, on the outskirts of Goma.
In May, AVSI, a UNICEF partner, set up a child-friendly space (CFS) in the camp to support the resilience and well-being of children and adolescents. Some 1,140 girls and boys attend the CFS, including Tuisenge’s 14-year-old daughter Judith.
They both know the value of CFS services. When Tuisenge fled from Bihambwe last month, she applied one of the key strategies to prevent family separation, taught to her by CFS outreach workers: attaching children, with cloth or rope, to parents or other caregivers during the chaos of displacement.
“As I had four children in the house, I took a piece of cloth and tied them up one to the other, because we had to cross a big river. So we ran,” Tuisenge said, adding that they had covered some 18 miles on foot to reach the camp in Mugunga.
The Masisi crisis caused some 15,000 IDPs to find refuge in Sake and Mugunga in Masisi Territory. But only 68 separated children (those separated from both parents) and 125 unaccompanied children (those separated from both parents and other relatives or caretakers) were reported, thanks in part to the prevention strategies taught through CFS activities. In child-friendly spaces, for example, children are taught to memorize the names of their parents and that of their village.
“The CFS has played a major role in the recent mass displacement, because very few children were reported separated from their families or unaccompanied,” said Elie Bahati, an AVSI child protection officer. “Children knew their parents’ names and they were easily traced back to their parents or families in 30 minutes.”
The CFS plays a key role in protecting children, providing a comprehensive package of services aimed at strengthening communities’ and households’ capacities to prevent child abuse, and improving the safety and well-being of children. The protecting community helps identify vulnerable children and children at risk, refers them to appropriate services, and monitors protection issues within the community.
“In an emergency situation, the child-friendly space is an important link within the protecting community,” explained Pontien Bashige, a UNICEF child protection officer in North Kivu.
Since 2007, UNICEF and AVSI have set up 25 child-friendly spaces in North Kivu Province, thanks to $1.2 million from the Government of Japan. The spaces provide a stimulating environment, with creative, educational and recreational activities.
Through awareness-raising, art and theater activities, and adolescent peer discussion groups, children also learn about issues such as HIV/AIDS prevention, gender-based violence, and hygiene promotion. It is, for many children, the first time they are able to openly express themselves in a supportive environment, discuss issues they face, and learn to manage the stresses of displacement.
"When I joined the adolescent group, I no longer think of my father’s death,” said Maska, a 16-year-old girl who lost her father four years ago. In the recent Masisi crisis, Maska had to escape with her mother, her seven siblings and her own 1-year-old baby. Today, she has gained confidence and is learning to cope with stress. “The CFS has taught me how to knit. All my bad thoughts have disappeared since I started knitting.”