Feared and forgotten, Congo's Ebola orphans work to survive

Feared and forgotten, Congo's Ebola orphans work to survive

BUTEMBO, Democratic Republic of Congo--Since Ebola killed her parents in 2019, Congolese teenager Patience has done various jobs to provide for her three younger siblings, from warehouse work to washing clothes for neighbours.

Her mother's dream was for all of the children finish school, but the oldest three had to drop out and find work after their parents died during the Democratic Republic of Congo's 2018-2020 Ebola outbreak - the country's deadliest on record. "Since our parents died, we don't miss any opportunities to make money," 16-year-old Patience said in the eastern city of Butembo, the epicentre of the Ebola crisis that infected 3,470 people and killed nearly 2,300 before it ended in June 2020.
Patience's 14-year-old sister and 12-year-old brother are also child labourers who carry sand and sell leeks at the market to cover the school fees for their youngest sister, aged seven. "We try to eat only at night," said Patience, whose name has been changed to protect her identity. She earns about 30,000 Congolese francs ($15) a month, which allows her to buy cassava flour to make the one meal the four siblings share each day.
About 2,770 children in eastern Congo lost one or both parents to the 2018-2020 Ebola outbreak, the United Nations estimates, and have ended up living with relatives, in orphanages, or even on the streets.
Traumatised and shunned due to discrimination around the disease, many children must work in order to eat, according to local advocates, who said efforts to care for and educate Ebola orphans were falling short due to a lack of funds and interest. Zawadi Bisomeko - head of the Solidarity of Women's Associations for the Protection of Women and Children - said her charity had received money to set up play areas and help the most vulnerable orphans go to school, but demanded more be done.
"Funds have been limited ... without responding to the real needs of children who are suffering a lot," she said, adding that free education and counseling should be provided to all Ebola orphans, and training to teenagers to help them find work.
Patience said she had been called "the girl who lost her parents to Ebola" and rejected by friends, as charities and officials struggle to deal with the impact of such stigma. "We have seen children wandering the streets because their aunts or uncles could not take them in due to fear," said Dibi Odile Mabanza, who is in charge of the gender, women, family, and children department of the Butembo town council.
"This is why most of them, despite their age, have become responsible for the household," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation, adding that hundreds of Ebola orphans in or around Butembo had been forced to work to eat and feed their siblings.
And as in many nations globally, the fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic has fuelled a rise in child labour and hindered efforts to identify and help the most vulnerable children in Congo. At the House of Compassion for Children in Need - an orphanage in Butembo - its head Dorcas Mbambu said she cared for about a dozen Ebola orphans: some whose relatives could not be traced, others who were seen as disease carriers and abandoned.
"I consider these children as my own, I breastfed them with love, I gave them names," said the 49-year-old, herself an orphan who used to work as a nurse while running the orphanage.
Yet Mbambu said she was frustrated by a lack of support for the children affected by Ebola, and said the government should prioritise family reunification efforts and education for them. "These children here are forgotten and abandoned by the government and charities," she added, saying that officials had not visited the orphanage to enquire about the Ebola orphans.
Asked about the provision of care for such orphans, social affairs officials in Butembo and its province of North Kivu said it was not their responsibility and referred questions to the nation's Ebola response team and U.N. children's fund (UNICEF). The now-defunct response team could not be reached for comment, but its former head of communications - Damien Mumbere Luhavo - also referred questions to UNICEF.
UNICEF representative Medard Onobaiso said the agency had supported children affected by Ebola, with nurseries, nutrition for infants, and counseling, and managed to ensure most orphans were now living with extended family rather than in foster care. Limited funding for local charities and a lack of government oversight had hindered sustained monitoring and care, he added.

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