Safeguarding indigenous children’s rights in Congo

The indigenous peoples of the Republic of the Congo, who constitute approximately 10 per cent of the country’s total population, lead a semi-nomadic life based on hunting and gathering deep within the nation’s dense forests. They are a widely marginalized population affected by extreme poverty, lack of access to basic social services such as health care, education, resources, as well as to the information they need to exercise their rights. Indigenous children suffer disproportionately from the lack of nutritious food and health services: about 50 per cent are chronically malnourished and more than 25 per cent die before reaching the age of 5*.

In an interview with Alexandra Brunais, Marius Biyekele, UNICEF Child Protection Specialist and focal point for the United Nations Indigenous Peoples’ Partnership (UNIPP) in the Republic of the Congo explains what UNICEF is doing to improve the lives of indigenous peoples through its programmes, and through its role as lead partner of the United Nations Indigenous Peoples’ Partnerships (UNIPP) in Congo.

How is UNICEF creating better conditions for indigenous peoples, and more particularly for indigenous children, in the Congo?

UNICEF has been active on the issues of indigenous peoples in the Congo since the early 2000s by documenting their situation and supporting the formulation of strategies for inclusion at the policy and ground levels.

On the ground, one of our main initiatives is to go to the indigenous communities to deliver a package of essential services they need. This package includes healthcare, vaccination, water, sanitation and hygiene services, basic education for children, birth registration, and information outreach about rights and how to claim these rights, as many indigenous peoples do not know about their existence.

The priority for children is healthcare, of course, and access to education. Access to education is extremely important, as it is the key to developing indigenous peoples’ capacity to claim their rights, and to improve their lives in a sustainable manner.

We work with the Government and partner NGOs to assemble mobile teams comprised of experts in the areas of service included in our package. We currently have five mobile teams, which are trained by UNICEF and sent on 15 to 20 day missions into remote parts of the forests to meet with indigenous communities and deliver these essential services.

The teams also gather information, which UNICEF analyses to better understand the challenges facing each community and to assess progress.
This initiative is taking place in select pilot zones for the time being but our goal in the longer run is to provide the Government with a model to reach indigenous communities that can be replicated on a national scale.

A registration worker  completes birth registration forms for indigenous children. © UNICEF/NYHQ2009-0832/Williams
A registration worker completes birth registration forms for indigenous children. © UNICEF/NYHQ2009-0832/Williams

Recently, UNIPP held a side-event in New York at the Thirteenth Session of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. How is UNIPP working for indigenous peoples in the Congo and what is UNICEF’s role within the partnership?

UNICEF plays a major role in UNIPP in the Congo by coordinating the work of the partnership, which is active at what is called the ‘upstream’ level: the partnership produces strategic information about the issues facing indigenous peoples to increase the visibility of these issues at the national level and to instigate governmental policies and action.

For example, UNICEF and its partners played a key role in incorporating indigenous peoples’ issues into the National Development Plan 2012-2016.

Recently, a great step forward has been the adoption by the Government of a National Action Plan 2014-2017 to improve the living conditions of indigenous peoples, based on national consultations with indigenous peoples organized by UNIPP in August 2013. This plan’s priority areas of action were determined by indigenous peoples themselves: health, education, citizenship, economic development, and access to justice and to land.

The Government had also previously adopted a law in 2011 for the protection of indigenous peoples, the first of its kind in Africa. This was also based on the advocacy of, and consultations with indigenous peoples and their leaders and on a constructive dialogue with the country’s institutions. UNIPP is now supporting the Government to apply this law. In partnership with the national network of indigenous communities, which UNICEF also helped establish, eight decrees have been formulated and are awaiting publication by the Government. Our goal is for the Government to assign the necessary funding to effectively apply this law.

Going forward, we want to do more to increase knowledge and awareness of this law among magistrates, judges, social and health workers, and most importantly, among indigenous peoples themselves, and among the entire Congolese population.

A woman from the indigenous Baka settlement holds her sleeping baby. © UNICEF/NYHQ2009-2528/Williams
“Education is at the centre of everything. With education, tomorrow we will have indigenous children who have had the opportunity to go to school, who are aware of the problems facing their communities and of their rights, and who can become spokespeople and leaders.” – Marius.
© UNICEF/NYHQ2009-2528/Williams

What were the highlights from the Thirteenth Session of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues?

The side event was very beneficial because it allowed us to share experiences from the Congo, and to learn from others’ experiences, especially out of Latin America where this issue is prominent and more advances have been made. Indigenous peoples face similar issues throughout the world. We were also able to carry the voices of indigenous peoples to the donor community to showcase our work. At this point we need to garner their financial support to keep building on the momentum we have achieved, and to further catalyze the Congolese Government’s action.

How would you like to see the situation evolving for the indigenous peoples of the Congo in the future and what innovations would you like to see happening?

Just over ten years ago, we didn’t talk about indigenous peoples, it was too sensitive a question. But the Congolese Government had the courage to acknowledge the historical social injustice towards them. The social and political acknowledgement of these communities has now been won. But we are still just at the very beginning and for the time being, the most basic innovations would be useful, such as simple tools to register births when communities are on the move, and to document instances of discrimination in order to address them. It is also crucial to create maps indicating their places of dwelling and their sacred places so these are not destroyed by the uncontrolled exploitation of the forest.

For now, we have to mobilize the resources to bring concrete solutions to this situation. Human development is a long process and we have to keep investing. Above all, we have to invest in education and in capacity building for indigenous people to know their rights, to know how to claim them, and to have the power to actively participate in the process of their own development.

Once,one of the indigenous children we signed up for school told me, ‘One day I will be President of the Republic.’ It was beautiful. Maybe he won’t be, but the fact that this was conceivable to him, was a sign that things are changing.

I am convinced that in the coming years the Congo can lead the way in furthering indigenous peoples’ rights.

* Source of data: Analyse de la situation des enfants et des femmes autochtones, UNICEF 2008 (p.14)

About UNIPP:
The United Nations Indigenous Peoples’ Partnership (UNIPP, the Partnership) is a collaboration between the International Labour Organization (ILO), the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) to work together to promote the rights of indigenous peoples. UNIPP is the first global inter-agency initiative with a programmatic focus on indigenous peoples at the country level, supported and complemented by strategic interventions at regional and international levels.

While the initiative was launched by leading agencies involved in the promotion of indigenous peoples’ rights worldwide, UNIPP can be expanded to involve other UN-system agencies that express interest in contributing to its goals and thus make the “One UN” work for indigenous peoples. With the generous support of Denmark, Finland and Ireland, the Partnership has now run for two years with national projects in Bolivia, Nicaragua, Cameroon, the Central African Republic, Congo, Nepal and a regional project in South-East Asia based in Bangkok.

The Partnership is governed by the UNIPP Policy Board, which provides overall leadership and sets the strategic direction of UNIPP. The Board articulates and develops the UNIPP Trust Fund policy, decides the allocation of UNIPP funds and reviews the progress of joint country programmes in accordance with the UNIPP Collaborative Framework. The current Board comprises five indigenous experts and five representatives from UN organizations. The Multi-Partners Trust Fund (MPTF) serves as the Administrative Agent for the funds and enjoys the support of the UN Resident Coordinators (UNRCs) in managing the strategic leadership of the UN Country Teams (UNCTs) and relationships with national authorities.

For more information about UNICEF’s role in UNIPP contact Nicola Brandt:

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  1. I am passionate about children and I always do everything I can to make sure they are in a safe environment. Let’s protect children lets protect the future.

  2. “Grâce à l’éducation, les enfants autochtones deviendront des leaders”
    […] Entretien avec Marius Biyekele, Spécialiste de la protection de l’enfance pour l’UNICEF et point focal du Partenariat des Nations Unies pour les peuples autochtones (UNIPP) en République du Congo. L’UNIPP est un partenariat entre l’Organisation internationale du travail (OIT), le Haut-Commissariat aux droits de l’homme (HCDH), le Programme des Nations unies pour le développement (PNUD), le Fonds des Nations unies pour l’enfance (UNICEF) et le Fonds des Nations unies pour la population (UNFPA). Le partenariat met en œuvre des initiatives en faveur des peuples autochtones au niveau national, régional et international. […]