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RIGHTS-DRC: A Glimmer of Hope for Children Working in Katanga’s Mines

Denis Bouwen

BRUSSELS, Oct 12 2006 (IPS) - Each day, thousands of children risk their lives by working in mines in the Katanga province of south-eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) – something a coalition of organisations is trying to address.

The region is rich in minerals such as copper, cobalt and coltan. But economic decline and difficulties at Gecamines, the state-run mining company, have led to a collapse in regulated mining.

In 1986, Gecamines produced nearly 500,000 tons of copper. By 2003 that figure had been reduced to 15,000. “The demise of Gecamines had enormous consequences because (it) had many satellite businesses and suppliers which were also severely affected by its bankruptcy,” said Raf Costermans, Group One’s representative in Katanga.

The company also financed schools, hospitals and flour mills. “All these initiatives experienced serious problems after the decline of Gecamines,” he noted.

Mines are presently kept operational by a pool of day labourers that includes a large number of underage workers.

However, an initiative is underway to improve the lives of these children – this under the auspices of a Belgian non-governmental organisation (NGO), Group One; the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF).

According to the NGO, the underage workers are mostly concentrated in concessions located around Kolwezi, in the south, and Likasi and Lubumbashi. Group One also estimates that some 50,000 of the 100,000 to 140,000 people involved in mining in Katanga are children; they are believed to vary in age from seven to 18.

“In the Lubumbashi region, 65 percent of children working in the mines no longer attend school. Others try to divide their time between school and the mine,” said Costermans.

“Often, they’re the oldest of a family’s children and are trying to take care of their younger brothers and sisters. If their father has died, they’re at greater risk of ending up at the bottom of a mine.”

Mine work may have disastrous effects on the children’s health, as it involves them carrying heavy bags and breathing in metal dust. This results in various illnesses – including cancer – and eye irritations, says Group One.

As with adult workers, the children are forced to work without masks, gloves, or helmets. No safety regulations are observed, and accidents are common.

“The health conditions are usually deplorable. If they’re thirsty, the workers have to drink water from the pits or creeks. In order to work faster, they regularly consume alcoholic beverages and marijuana,” said Costermans.

At Shinkolobwe, near Likasi, there is a uranium deposit that provided the raw material for the first atomic bomb dropped by the United States during World War Two. Officially, the mine is out of commission; but witnesses have reported that miners there are so contaminated by radioactivity that they cause radios and televisions in the area to malfunction.

In addition, children in the area are reportedly being born with deformities. “Some are born without brains,” said Costermans. “Girls also come to the mines and practice prostitution, which accelerates the progression of HIV.”

Articles published by various international press outlets have highlighted dangerous working conditions in the Katanga mines.

Group One and the ILO have drawn further attention to these conditions; last year, they also developed a programme to help child day labourers. Conducted in partnership with UNICEF, the project aims to make local people and authorities aware of the dangers posed to the young miners – and to bring an end to child labour in the mines.

Some 250 children under the age of 15 have already been able to leave the region’s mines and return to school full time.

“We help out the families of the children and try to get them involved in other remunerative activities. Next year, the parents themselves are going to be able to pay their kids’ school fees all on their own,” said Costermans.

In November, the project will train a second group of 250 children, this time older than 15, in shoemaking and electronics for three to nine months. Afterwards they will complete an internship and receive guidance in setting up their own micro-enterprises, says Group One.

The United Nations World Food Programme will provide the teenagers with one meal a day throughout their training period.

Authorities in Katanga have become more concerned with the welfare of children working in mines, according to Group One. But, notes Costermans, there’s still a long way to go: “We can’t yet say there’s been a real reduction in the number of children working in the mines.”

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