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11th African Regional Meeting (Addis Ababa, 24-27 April 2007): From child soldier to entrepreneur

Potentially one of the richest countries in Africa, the Democratic Republic of Congo is currently one of the poorest. Eighty per cent of the population live on less than a dollar a day.

Article | 20 April 2007

Potentially one of the richest countries in Africa, the Democratic Republic of Congo is currently one of the poorest. Eighty per cent of the population live on less than a dollar a day. Anarchy and violence that swept across the east of the country between 1996 and 2003 had turned at least 30,000 children into soldiers, and caused millions to flee their homes. Today, the majority of Congolese just want to see their country back on its feet. This is the story of one of them, a former child soldier, and his friends who successfully started a business with support from the ILO's International Programme on the Elimination of Child Labour (IPEC).

KINSHASA, Democratic Republic of Congo (ILO Online) – Elois comes from a very poor family in the Eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). His peasant parents were not able to support his education after the fourth grade.

During the war, Elois' village was invaded by rebels who raped, pillaged and killed. 13 year-old Elois decided to join the Mai Mai militia and was encouraged to do so by his family. Families whose children had joined the army were better off, respected in the community and more or less spared from violence.

Elois stayed with the armed group for five years, and was even awarded a prize for being the best shooter in his group. He managed to earn some money which he sent home to support his family.

After the ceasefire agreements were signed in 2003, most commanders left for Kinshasa to take up high positions in the transitional government while Elois and his ‘brothers-in-arms' were left in the bush, abandoned to their fate.

When he finally returned to his family, Elois found that living conditions were worse than ever. The parents could no longer work in the field for fear of the militia who often attacked them and took away their harvest.

"Black wood": a sign of hope in the heart of Africa

A year later, Elois learnt from some friends he had been with in the militia that there was an opportunity for him to get vocational training and support to start a business.

Elois successfully applied for the programme initiated by the local NGO FSH (Fondation Solidarité des Hommes). He chose to become a baker and received free training for two-and-a-half months.

With six other ex-child soldiers, Elois started a baking micro enterprise which they called Bois Noir (French for Black Wood). Another ILO funded NGO, Group One, provided them with all the necessary equipment and advice to start a bakery business.

Recognizing that people are extremely poor in the area and cannot afford the normal loaves of bread sold on the market, Elois decided to produce smaller loaves that most people can afford.

Today, 19 year-old Elois and his colleagues sell 350 loaves of bread each day. They want to develop their business, expand their production, hire more employees and look for more customers. They receive continuous support by the staff of Group One project, while an independent structure of Group One will continue to do so even after the end of the ILO/IPEC (International Programme on the Elimination of Child Labour) project.

Armed conflict and child labour

The story of Elois illustrates the formidable challenges the African continent is confronted with. According to the report prepared for the African Regional Meeting (Note 1), armed conflict, the persistence of widespread and chronic poverty, the large proportion of out-of-school children and the effects of HIV/AIDS explain the high incidence of child labour in Africa.

"Child labour constitutes a serious impediment to the implementation of strategies for employment creation and poverty reduction, as well as education and training programmes and the development prospects of the countries of the region", says Regina Amadi-Njoku, ILO regional director for Africa.

In November 2006, the ILO Governing Body endorsed a global action plan committing the ILO and its member States to the elimination of the worst forms of child labour by 2016. To this end, all member States are called upon to design and put in place appropriate time-bound measures by the end of 2008. The global action plan also calls for a special focus on Africa, in view of the slow progress in combating child labour in the region.

"The design and implementation of time-bound national action plans against child labour as an integral part of broader development programmes are key to addressing this complex problem", says Amadi-Njoku.

A number of African countries such as Ghana, Kenya, Mali and the United Republic of Tanzania have been using the Time-Bound Programme approach to develop and implement national action plans. The approach involves a range of policy and other measures to target the root causes of child labour and provide direct assistance in preventing the engagement of children in the worst forms of child labour and providing for the withdrawal, rehabilitation and social integration of those already engaged in such activities.

Ensuring that women and men, and particularly former child soldiers like Elois, can go back to work in conditions in which their basic human rights are respected represents a major step in the process of recovery and rebuilding, not just of physical, but also social, infrastructure.

"Conflicts in a number of African countries have shown that lack of access to decent jobs for young people can contribute to protracting or refuelling conflict", concludes Amadi-Njoku.

For more information (Reports, press releases, etc.) on the 11th African Regional Meeting in Addis Ababa, please click here.

Note 1 - The Decent Work Agenda in Africa: 2007–2015, Eleventh African Regional Meeting, Addis Ababa, April 2007. Report of the Director-General, International Labour Office, Geneva, 2007.