Improving the Health of Child Laborers

Publication Date: 
August 10, 2017

They have no rights. They don’t go to school. They are poor, malnourished and subjected to overwhelming physical demands that many adults could not handle. They are the “children of the mines” in Mbuji-Mayi, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) -- where our Salesian missionaries have launched a new effort to improve their health and their lives.

Known as “the diamond capital” of the DRC, Mbuji-Mayi is not a pleasant place to be a child. Here, as many as four in ten girls and boys -- some as young as five years old -- struggle day after back-breaking day in the relentless heat: burrowing into pits, hauling sacks of heavy earth, and crouching over trays as they sift for a few precious stones. Many earn less than $2 for an entire day’s work.

The DRC produces more industrial diamonds than any other country in the world. And, while the country’s government outlaws all forms of child labor and exploitation, the “widespread problem is that the industry is barely regulated,” explains Father Mark Hyde, director of Salesian Missions. Increasingly larger, government-run mines have yielded the market to smaller, privately-run enterprises that blatantly disobey the law.

“Children are valuable to those who run the mines,” says Fr. Mark. “Because they are physically smaller, girls and boys can more easily be lowered into, and move around, the tight tunnels where the diamonds are formed. “And parents, for the most part, are happy to send their sons and daughters to work,” he continues. “With an average of six or seven mouths to feed, they need every spare dollar they can scrape to meet their families’ most basic needs.”

Those children “fortunate” enough to escape such grueling work ultimately fare no better. In fact, nearly all of them are victims of the industry: those left to care for younger siblings while their parents toil in the mines; those selling beans, maize, water and even physical favors on the periphery for a few extra coins; those forever trapped in place by the false sense of a more prosperous future that never actually materializes.

“They do what they can to survive,” says Fr. Mark. “But they have no electricity, no access to safe drinking water and limited food resources. My colleagues at Muetu Don Bosco in Mbuji-Mayi tell me that as many as 40 percent of children are sick enough to require daily medical care.”

For this reason, Salesian missionaries at Muetu Don Bosco are building a new medical facility to serve the area’s youth. Located in a Salesian-run complex that also includes a primary school, high school, vocational training center and overnight shelter for street children, the clinic will help improve the health of hundreds of girls and boys each day. Here, they can access wellness check-ups, preventive care and treatment for the common diseases of poverty that so many of them suffer: malaria, tuberculosis, typhoid fever, dysentery and more. They will also, by virtue of entering the campus for appointments, learn about the educational opportunities available to them that can assist them in transitioning out of the mines and into sustainable, well-paying jobs.

“This new clinic is one small step toward helping the DRC’s impoverished and exploited youth find new dignity and hope for the future. But it’s an important one which will hopefully be a new path for these children of the mines,” concludes Fr. Mark.

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