Being a child in Burundi is not easy, even during peaceful times. The average Burundian child suffers from malnutrition, goes to a school in a classroom with 74 pupils and shares a textbook with three other children. Her family lives in a situation of extreme poverty, she may be exposed to violence, and in some cases she may even be living on the street.
Burundi has been through cycles of recurring conflict since its independence and had been slowly rebuilding itself into a situation of fragile peace since the last conflict ended in 2005. But at the end of April this year, violent pre-electoral demonstrations began in Burundi’s capital, Bujumbura – making the situation for these already vulnerable children even worse.
In Bujumbura, the majority of schools are currently closed, and students have missed the last trimester. For schools to reopen, it is crucial that the security situation improves allowing all children to get to and from school safely and for schools to be peaceful environments. Some of the children that tried to take the 6th-grade exam in May found themselves in front of closed examination centers while others started their examinations only to have them suspended before they could finish.
Then there are the children that we used to see every day in the street; who would offer to look after your car or to help you with your bags – anything to make some money to get something to eat. I would chat to them whenever I saw them downtown around the markets and the businesses areas. They make a way of life out of it, living and sleeping in groups in the street for self-protection.
As UNICEF, we follow up with them and try to help them find their way back to their families and communities but it takes time and it is not easy, since most left home for a reason – in most cases violence and poverty. We know that there are around 3,000 children living on the streets across Burundi’s three main cities, but the vast majority live in Bujumbura.
When the recent violence started, it was these vulnerable children who were the first to suffer. More police appeared on the street, and all of a sudden the children had no access to the market or other business places. As soon as the clashes started I went to go see them – they were already worried, scared, and hungry.
“It’s very difficult these days,” Christine, 13, told me. She has been living in the streets of Bujumbura for the past two years. “Since the clashes started everything has stopped. The city has emptied out and it’s harder for us to find food. I don’t always eat every day. And I’m afraid.”
Christine and the others I know found themselves in a desperate situation. So with our partners we helped arrange at least one meal per day, water, and hygiene kits, and blankets for them. Some went back to their families or even went to other provinces, but around 50 sheltered in one of the centers in town, close to one of the main scenes of clashes, during the attempted coup.
When we visit these children and others sheltered away from their homes for safety reasons, they always tell us how scared they are when they hear the gunshots, crying themselves to sleep every night. Are we losing yet another opportunity to raise children in peace and security?
We can still change this situation and give them what they deserve: a violence-free society that cares about children and puts their best interests first.
Pedro Guerra is a Child Protection Specialist at UNICEF Burundi.