'Children's Parliament' Sets High Bar in Congo

By Stephanie McCrummen
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, August 11, 2007

GOMA, Congo -- 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."

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.

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.

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