By Salama A Salama
As the tragic circumstances of the rape and killing of street children unfolded, one would have expected the government to form a committee to look into the phenomenon and find appropriate solutions. Instead, all we got was an inane remark by one official who blamed the NGOs for failing to act. This automatic shirking of responsibility has become a hallmark of the government's reaction to a host of domestic problems related to education and the youth. For some time now, the problems of children have been handled by the National Council for Childhood and Motherhood (NCCM). With few exceptions, no other organisation dared to get into that field of work. The NCCM launched a campaign to help street children a few months ago, but that campaign produced little more than newspaper articles and conference meetings.
The recent atrocity, attributed to a gang led by someone called El-Turbini, involved up to 30 victims. This alone tells us that the phenomenon is as widespread as it is alarming. We have a Ministry for Social Welfare that is supposedly in charge of children's homes around the country. We have several NGOs that receive no financial help from the ministry and rely on funding from private citizens and foreign aid organisations. And yet the government has been unable to find real solutions to the problem of homeless children. The latter are falling prey to gangs of racketeers and drug dealers who have no qualms or conscience. The phenomenon resonates with the history of some Latin American countries where belts of poverty around major cities produce child gangs as well as gangs that kill children.
According to 1999 estimates, street children numbered almost two million. So imagine the figure now. We have children sleeping under bridges and living in train stations. And we see them everyday, walking our streets, vulnerable and lost, victim of extreme poverty, broken homes, and chaotic migration to urban areas. The government only takes notice when they break the law. At which point, the police takes charge and the children are sent to punitive institutions, from which they often escape or never again appear.
Homeless children are not the only problem in our streets. Traffic is a mess, bullying is common, and sexual harassment widespread. Meanwhile, our police are busy protecting the government, its officials and buildings. Our police should be maintaining the safety of citizens, but it is busy doing other things. This is why new forms of ill- behaviour emerge everyday.
Interest in homeless children began belatedly in this country, with the efforts of one or two NGOs formed in 1988, one of them by a retired British teacher. So far, the work of these NGOs has proved more effective than anything the government has tried.
The worst thing at this point is for the government to resort to its usual heavy- handedness. For example, it may start treating homeless children as criminals. Or it may round up the children and throw them in far away camps, in a land reclamation project or what have you. Or again, it could tell the army to raise them. Such responses would be misguided. These children are not the problem; we are. Our inability to provide solutions to poverty is the problem. The government's attempt to make life harder for NGOs is the problem. And the lack of real research into the phenomenon is inexcusable.