Get your smile back with dignity

Nyota Centre

Like many other regions of Africa, countries in the Great Lakes region are exposed to many human rights violations due in part to decades of successive cycles of violence, most of them ethnically based. In the case of the DR Congo, human rights violations are mainly structural. There is a lack of health, food security, public order, access to justice, secondary and higher education, insufficient job creation for the poorest, etc. Then there is the endemic physical violence, whether in urban neighbourhoods, on the roads or as a result of armed conflicts that have displaced more than seven million people. The primary victims of this violence are women and children.

In Bukavu

I work in Bukavu, which has become sprawling with the influx of internally displaced people. They include a large number of women and children who are victims of gender-based violence or who roam the streets at the risk of prostitution.

The entire society is affected by this structural and regional trauma, which is compounded by the trivialisation of rape in most quarters and the use of gender-based violence as a ” war weapon” (for purposes such as territorial cleansing or subduing a population by terror).

The principal reasons for these abuses are political and economic, and they go hand in hand. A minority exploits the immense majority with no future and no social protection. Considering the wealth of the country’s underground and natural resources (forestry, water), international companies are complicit and guilty of plundering this country of immense wealth.

But we can contribute to the liberation of these people through various prophetic testimonies. First of all, there is the work of denunciation and advocacy. Several letters from the National Episcopal Conference (CENCO) have strongly denounced these injustices for decades without much effect on the impunity of those in power. Justice and Peace Commissions are in all the dioceses, parishes and sometimes grassroots communities, which courageously raise awareness and provide training. Some confreres collaborate with them wherever possible. Each sector has a Justice and Peace officer, M.Afr. However, he knows that taking legal action to protect victims would expose him to unforeseeable costs, given the corruption in the legal system and the risk of retaliation, especially if the victims are foreigners, which is more often the case.

Another prophetic way of combating human rights violations is to guarantee or restore the rights of the vulnerable on the periphery. Let me give you two examples of the commitments I have been making for over a decade with the financial support of friends. While the Society recognises the value of the work it encourages, it is not officially committed to it.

Two examples

These programmes target two particularly vulnerable categories of young people. Girls who are victims of poverty or living on the streets, or who have suffered sexual trauma, and boys used as slaves in highly precarious conditions in the gold mines, earning just enough to survive.

The first project, the Nyota Centre, located in the parish of Kadutu, depends on the diocese of Bukavu (which provides the premises). I have been involved since 2010, helping to fund the salaries, running costs and upkeep of the buildings. The centre receives between 250 and 260 extremely vulnerable girls daily. We ascertain that the family has no resources to care for them and that is if the family still exists. The aim is to enable these young people to rebuild their lives psychologically and morally by teaching them to read and write, providing them with access to diplomas, and teaching them a trade to make them self-sufficient. Those who are not with their families are welcomed in foster homes. A team of 16 people, including a nun, takes care of them in all respects, ranging from the provision of uniforms and school equipment to schooling and psychological support, as well as providing a daily protein porridge for around sixty of them, depending on their state of health. The training takes 3 to 5 years. It is entirely free of charge. The finalists are invited to appear before the primary school jury and the provincial sewing jury. Those who succeed can continue their studies, while a number receive a reintegration kit that enables them to start a small income-generating project. We have 100% success rates at the two juries. However, many of these girls have no identity papers, which makes them highly vulnerable when they begin an economic project upon leaving the course. We have, therefore, hired a lawyer who prepares the files with the director to obtain what is known as a “suppletive judgment”, which facilitates the procurement of a birth certificate for each child. This certificate enables the child to obtain an identity card. It was thanks to this that our elders were able to vote in the last elections. This is a good illustration of our work on human rights. These children did not “exist” before coming to us. 

The other project concerns youths exploited in the mines at Kamituga, in the diocese of Uvira. The parish’s carpentry school trains these young people in the carpentry trade, providing them with the basic skills they need to start their own small-scale carpentry workshops or get a job with a company. At the end of their training, they also receive a reintegration kit containing basic tools. We are also building a large workshop to equip them with a range of electric woodworking machines that will enable them to become more professional.

A network of friends funds these two projects. Some are friends of the Missionaries of Africa, and others are involved in my ” Seeds of Hope ” self-help network.

The Talitha Kum network

Finally, I am involved in the Talitha Kum network, which combats human trafficking throughout the world and particularly in Africa. This network, founded by the International Union of Superiors General (UISG, Rome) in 2009, fights against human trafficking, especially of women and children, often for the purposes of prostitution or organ harvesting. These trafficking networks take advantage of the desire of young Africans to go abroad at any price. Talitha Kum undertakes preventive action, support for those who have decided to migrate and repatriation of victims who wish to return home. The network is also involved in advocacy and reporting. One form of prevention against trafficking, in my opinion, is the work done by the two centres we run in the DRC. Indeed, a young person who has a trade and who has been given the equipment to take care of himself is much less likely to migrate in precarious conditions.

The greatest reward for this investment is the smile on the faces of the finalists who each year regain their dignity and look forward to a better future.

By: Bernard Ugeux, M.Afr.

Nyota Centre
Kamituga Carpentry School