ANGOLA: Children Hounded by Poverty and the Effects of War
by Santos Virgilio
Luanda -- Guilherme Sebastiao's story reflects the main factors that have forced thousands of children onto the streets of Angola's capital: war, poverty and violence. Just over five years ago, his mother left Guilherme, his elder brother and two older sisters in Luanda to go on a trip up country. That was during a one-and-a-half year lull in the rebel war that had wracked Angola since independence in 1975.
The war resumed in October 1992 while Guilherme's mother, who was the head of the household, was still away. She never came back even after a shaky peace agreement signed in 1994, broken on occasion by the two sides, and reaffirmed last year.
Before leaving Luanda, she had paid six month's rent up front. When that period elapsed the landlord evicted them and they went to live with their maternal uncle. However, he kicked them out shortly afterwards, accusing them of being sorcerers.
''Even in the street, my uncle used to pursue me with a pistol to kill me,'' recalls 12-year-old Guilherme. ''All these years, I had to run whenever I came across him.''
The CIES, an Italian non-governmental organisation, came to his rescue, filing a complaint against the uncle, who was made by a Luanda court to promise to leave the youngster alone or face a prison term.
Guilherme now lives in the basement of a building with four other youths, the oldest - and leader -- is 16 years old. ''The residents of the building help us with food, clothes, and registered us in a school,'' says the fifth-grader.
In the meantime, his family has disintegrated. His brother is teaching somewhere. One of his sisters is somewhere in South Africa and the other is reportedly in London.
A street child comes across many obstacles in life and matures quickly. Guilherme is no exception. He thinks carefully before uttering a word. He thinks ''the government has to help all children in difficult situations...''. How? ''Shelters ought to be built,'' he suggests, ''more schools, hospitals have to be built ... so as to end these problems.
He feels all this is possible ''if the government collaborates with the children''. If it doesn't, ''what are we going to do?'' he wonders.
Children like Guilherme face an uncertain future on the streets of Luanda even though NGOs have been trying to alleviate their situaton. Some have provided food, others have given medical help or social assistance when in a position to do so.
Stories like Guilherme's can be heard in most of Angola's cities. ''The latest statistics, compiled in 1995, indicate that there are 10,000 street children countrywide and 4,000 here in the capital,'' says Afonso Ngonda, a teacher at the National Institute for Children (NAC) here.
However, Graziela Mancini, coordinator of the CIES' 'Street Children Support Project says no one knows for sure how many they are. Moreover, not all actually live on the street, she says.
According to Mancini, ''there must be about five hundred street children in Luanda''. The rest, she says, are children of the street, who survive by begging and doing odd jobs during the day then retire to their homes in the evening. Much of the time, the war is blamed for their being there, but it is not the only factor. ''The problem which characterises these children is poverty,'' says Mancini. ''It may have begun with the war but today it is poverty and domestic violence.'
Ngonda agrees that poverty is widespread. ''Nearly 70 percent of families in our country live in almost absolute poverty,'' he says. But he adds that ''before the 1992 war there were no street children''.
Mancini's work with the children does not involve the distribution of food and clothes: she feels such projects are not sustainable: at some point they come to an end and it's back to square one. ''We give them classes,'' she explains, ''we teach them about the role of state institutions so that they can know their rights as children and citizens and decide for themselves when and how to get off the street.''
She feels a street child is ''in most cases a child with many dreams, full of imagination and creativity; a child who really wants to study''.
Many do not get that chance, especially some of the girls, who are lured or forced into prostitution. ''Child prostitutes are a bigger and much more serious problem,'' says Mancini. ''We are working with the government and UNICEF (U.N. Children's Fund) to try and minimise it because we know that eliminating it is already impossible.''
''Our biggest difficulty with child prostitutes is that we do not manage to find them jobs or other occupations in which they can earn as much as they do in prostitution,'' adds Mancini.
Ngonda confirms that ''the sexual exploitation of minors is increasing dangerously.'' He adds that children are being allowed entry into nightclubs, where anything can happen and, in some cases, relatives or supposed guardians fetch girls aged as young as 10 from the country and force them into prostitution.
A national meeting on the sexual exploitation of minors, promoted by INAC has resulted in a draft project for future action that has been submitted to the cabinet, he says.
The experts feel the solution has to be a global one: making society aware of the problem, then tackling the issue of consolidating peace and ''paying more attention to assisting families instead of investing in defence,'' according to Mancini.
For the children, such attention would come none too soon. They feel it's time the government did its bit and they have been trying to find an opportunity to discuss their concerns with the decision-makers.
"We are organising with the help of NGOs so that we can speak with ministers and or parliamentarians," said Guilherme. ''Then we are going to know what they are thinking of our life.''
In the meantime, he still hopes that his mother will come back sometime soon. (END/IPS/SV/KB/97)