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'Children's court' sets high bar in Congo

/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

It had already been a long day when Case No. 4, woman with delinquent husband, walked through the metal gates into the spare, concrete-floored chambers of the so-called Children's Parliament here.

The aggrieved woman sat in front of a large wooden desk, where skinny, 14-year-old Eddy Musoke -- the Honorable Eddy, to his parliamentary colleagues -- recorded her story with the seriousness of a seasoned attorney.

"The case was of a woman with six children," he explained afterward, glancing down at the fresh file. "She came to accuse her husband of being an irresponsible father. He has six children, and for three years, the father has paid no school fees."

"We'll write an invitation to the father and another to the wife," he added. "Their appointment is next Wednesday."

Veering toward the absurd
Life in Congo can often veer toward the absurd. It is one of Africa's richest countries in terms of mineral wealth, but its people are among the poorest on Earth. Federal employees go to work each day, but most of them have not been paid in more than a decade.

With government institutions, including the courts, hobbled by decades of corruption and neglect, one of the few bodies still reliably administering justice is a parliament run by, and mostly for, children.

Launched in 2002, the U.N. initiative has since taken on a life of its own, with 150 members and little day-to-day adult supervision.

One recent Friday, there were no adults in sight except those pleading for help from the children. The parliament's officers took a break from a busy schedule -- lobbying to free children from prison that morning, four cases in the afternoon -- to discuss their work.

"Mostly children bring cases here," said Arthur Omar Kayumba, 16, seated at a desk on which a folded piece of paper read "Vice-President."

"Sometimes they are accusing their parents of not taking care of them, or women are accusing their husbands of not supporting the children," he said. "Since January, we've had more than 105 cases."

He pulled a thick, blue binder from a bookshelf lined with legal texts and recounted some of them.

Children's issues
There was the girl whose father had accused her of being a witch; the 16-year-old boy who had been forced to serve as a militia commander's bodyguard; the woman who accused her husband of illegally selling their compound, to the detriment of their 10 children.

Musoke, the parliament's adviser on protection for children, usually records the unsavory details. The parties are then sent a letter including a date when they can present their stories to the parliament's officers. The letter also includes a P.S.: "We will be obliged to contact the competent service in the matter of protecting minors if you do not respect this invitation. Sincerely, Junior Alimasi, Vice-President of Protection and Participation."

Although the parliament cannot render legal rulings, officers do offer recommendations -- "moral advice," Kayumba called it -- based on their study of Congolese law and U.N. conventions on children's rights.

In Case No. 4, for instance, "if the father says, 'Okay, I will take care of my children,' he will have to sign a document promising he will," Musoke said.

"We listen to both parties and try to assist them based on the conventions and the constitution," Kayumba added. "And we show them the consequences of not respecting the law."

Most adults listen
Most adults listen to their decisions, he said, but "if not, we contact the special police."

The police do not always follow up, but when they do, consequences can range from a reprimand to fines to jail time, depending on Congolese law, Kayumba said.

The United Nations has initiated other children's parliaments in Africa, which are meeting at a convention later this year to discuss, among other topics, how to address the plight of children worldwide.

The original officers in Goma were selected by their teachers on the basis of their academic records. Now, officers are elected by the parliament's members.

The precocious leaders strictly enforce rules requiring that members be younger than 17. Adults can be honorary counselors if the members agree.

"If you have ideas to dominate or manipulate the parliament, you must leave," said Kelvin Batumike, who, at 20, has been given the title of high counselor.

Over the years, the officers have developed their own thoughts on the state of their nation. Congo, then known as Zaire, was ruled for nearly 40 years by the dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, who stole liberally from the state's coffers and encouraged a culture in which government employees did the same.

Growing up fast
Mobutu's overthrow in 1997 triggered a decade of civil war in eastern Congo, where militia groups still roam the lush green mountains and children are often forced to become soldiers and in other ways grow up fast.

Up and down the crumbling dirt roads here, it is common to see toddlers hauling heavy jugs of water, teetering under the weight. A steady stream of twig-legged boys make their way down from the surrounding mountains into Goma every day, pushing wooden bicycles twice their size and piled impossibly high with bananas.

"When I see such kinds of problems, it makes me think that in the future, I will become a man of revolution to fight against this mistreatment of children," Musoke said. "All the world knows Congo is a big, rich country, and I would make it worthy of its name."

Kayumba said he imagines a political career.

"I want to be president of the republic," he said.

Musoke smiled. "When I was young, I had some thoughts like my brother here," the younger boy said.

It was almost 4 p.m. The parliamentarians had been at Goma's jail most of the day, explaining to the officers there that it is illegal to imprison those younger than 18 and lobbying for the youthful inmates' release. Case No. 4 came later that afternoon, and now it was time for the parliament's weekly radio broadcast.

Musoke and Kayumba headed toward the radio station, a 20-minute walk away at the top of a hill overlooking Goma. The long-suffering city is still covered in lava from a volcanic eruption in 2002.

Like a pro...
They took their seats in the broadcast booth, where they were joined by special guests Merline and Dimanche, two 16-year-old girls who are also parliamentarians. Musoke sat up straight, glanced at his notes like an old pro and awaited his cue.

"Why this discrimination between boys and girls?" he began, by way of introducing the show's topic.

"Thank you, Honorable Eddy," Kayumba said. "This inequality is caused by traditions. In many families and tribes, they give greater importance to boys than to girls. When a woman is not educated, all the nation is in danger, because it is the woman who gives the basic education to the children."

The show continued for half an hour, the teenagers debating the origins of gender inequality in Congo.

Then the Honorable Eddy signed off.

"We thank you all, dear listeners," he said, and the four went back to the office to finish some work.