Excluded and invisible
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Street children are subjected to abuse, malnutrition and sexual harassement on a regular basis. At many times, their conditions lead them to inflict their painful state on others
Mohamed, 12, is showing off his new clothes. He got them right here from Hope Village, he explains, which also provides him with meals, hot showers, medical and social care. At the institution's Day Care Centre in Sayeda Zeinab, Mohamed confesses that he has been on and off the streets since his father died 10 years ago, when his stepfather proved abusive. After he was old enough to strike back, he was permanently banned from home. As a tabbaa, microbus driver assistant, he managed to get by. At one point he moved to Alexandria. (On the way he even witnessed El-Torbini at work, he reports: the infamous street gang leader who made the headlines after his arrest for raping and killing street children on top of the fast "turbini" Cairo-Alex train, had delivered his trademark, fatal shove when, happily, passersby walking along the tracks managed to catch the unfortunate victim just in time to save his life). Once in Alexandria, however, Mohamed was arrested -- only to be released back onto the streets. "But I don't sleep in the open," Mohamed is quick to add. "I sleep in a mosque..." Mohamed says no such misfortune befell him but, according to centre head Khaled Dawoud, no less than 99 per cent of street children are sexually abused on a regular basis. Talking to Mohamed, now, it feels strange to have driven past so many of those clinging souls who cling to one's car windshield or clothes insisitng that you buy their disposable tissues, flowers or simply give them money -- never bothering to give them a name. Indeed a 2006 UNICEF report indicates that there are in the cities of the world millions such "excluded and invisible" children, impoverished, uneducated and malnourished. In Egypt numbers are yet not forthcoming, though a new survey promises to give a relatively accurate estimate. But in the end, one is inclined to ask how such a state of affairs comes about despite human rights treaties and international laws.
According to Fadia Abu Shehba, professor at the National Centre for Social and Criminal Research, "the factors are numerous, including fragile families, broken homes and the absence of one of the two pillars of the family. Lack of compatibility within homes gives way to domestic violence, forcing children to run away. And this is not to mention the complete lack of any form of parental guidance. Besides, crammed into little apartments with as little as one room for 10 people, children often see their parents having sex and want to copy them, initially with siblings, hence rape and harassment. Children choose the street, where there is enough room, only to be exploited by street gangs, whether sexually, in the drug trade or, more recently, trading internationally in their body parts." Throughout the 1990s, especially, rising unemployment rates and inflation have contributed to the erosion of the moral fabric of society, giving way to a heartless materialism that doesn't balk at exploitation through child labour or early marriage. As Dawoud points out, another factor is dropping out of school: failing to see the point of education, students skip classes, thus taking their first steps on the streets; once this forms into a pattern, a child will spend the night out simply to avoid confrontation with his parents. Thankfully organisations like Hope Village -- according to its chairwoman, Abla El-Badry, the first organisation in Egypt to cater especially to street children -- understand all this.
Hope Village provides for 4,000 children every year; most come from broken homes with a strong component of domestic violence; some five per cent are literate. Children are housed in temporary shelters where they can resume their studies or take up vocational training; money allocated to them, together with any money they make, is automatically saved and part of it goes towards the purchase of a small flat. "We provide for some 180 children in our shelters, aside from those whose families we manage to contact. Some 700 families have been supported using a micro-credit programme on condition that they take the child back in." Hope Village reception centres have also conducted blood tests on all those who walk in (an average of 35 children a day), as part of the national campaign against AIDS; so far results have been invariably negative. A greater challenge, says Dawoud, is to persuade the children to give up peddling and begging, which can bring in up to LE90 per day; at the shelters they receive no more than a pound's allowance. Street children, says Dawoud, are classified into first-timers, regulars and leaders, the latter, who are often violent and capable of murder organise the day's work, oversee their younger partners, and molest them at night. Another challenge he mentions is when parents decide to have the children back -- no guarantee, in that case, that they will not abuse them as they did before they first left home. Here too nothing can be done.
For her part, El-Badry highlights a different problem: street girls bearing nameless unregistered children who make the census unreliable. Hope Village has paid attention to them since 2000, and in 2005 opened a centre dedicated to teenage street mothers. According to Amal Abdel-Rahman, the woman in charge of the latter, many street pregnancies are the consequence of rape, yet it makes the rape victim, already cast off by her family, even less acceptable to them, producing a new generation of street children: "We now have 10 young mothers -- children bearing children -- who don't know how to provide for them. In many cases, infants end up dead or kidnapped. They come here seeking a stable shelter, but many of them leave again to become sex workers, often due to drug addictions." Amira, who has stayed, was only 13 when she ran away from home to sell flowers, sleeping in a public park. "To avoid prostitution," she says, "I had to marry the neighbourhood thug" -- a urfi or unregistered marriage, evidence of which tends to remain in the husband's hands -- "and he disowned me once he realised I was pregnant, destroyed the contract and disappeared. I tried to abort myself but didn't manage to, then I talked to the social worker at Hope Village, who explained that there was a place for me here. I wish I'd come straight here when I first left home." Amira works as a nurse; she has reached level six of the literacy programme and is learning how to raise her son, now one. "That's what my problem is now: my son is illegitimate, so I can not legally obtain a birth certificate. My worst nightmare is that someone should stop me on the street and demand proof that I am this child's mother." A parentless child might be issued a birth certificate by the government, explains Abdel-Rahman, but a fatherless one cannot; he will get neither an education nor any other government service; such, sadly, is the law.
More generally, Mushira Khattab, secretary-general of the National Council for Childhood and Motherhood (NCCM), feels that not enough attention is paid to street children: "I'm glad about the case of El-Torbini, sad as it is: it indicates that we as a society are waking up." Legal amendments in the Child Law are underway and should be submitted to parliament by the end of the month, she announced. This will help people like Amira obtain birth certificates for their children. Yet she believes children should be returned to their parents, who now have the easy option of abandoning their offspring to NGOs; the families should rather be assisted, the reasons behind children ending up on the streets countered: "Don't ask me to amend the law to allow NGOs custody at the expense of parents. I want to discourage parents from giving away their children. A broken, illiterate family might think of their immediate need rather than the best interest of their child. It's my duty to show them that they have a responsibility, whether I represent the government or an NGO." Will the new amendments provide for a penalty against parents who abandon their children? All Khattab is willing to divulge is that it will stress both the responsibility of the family and that of the state to empower it: "We are concentrating on the right of the child to family care. If we don't limit the tendency to give up children, abandoning children will be a 'business' option for everyone." Legal amendments, it is worth noting, are part of a programme the NCCM is undertaking in partnership with other government bodies, NGOs and UNICEF, its object being the implementation of a national strategy for the protection, habilitation and re- integration of street children, which was launched back in 2003. A hotline for lodging complaints was launched in June 2005, in collaboration with a number of NGOs.
Salma Wahba, adolescence officer at UNICEF Egypt, says that according to the present law, street children fall under the category of children in danger of being juvenile delinquents: "We are lobbying for listing them as children at risk, hence sparing them any police interference. Moreover, UNICEF is aiming at a comprehensive approach, with a social body that provides safety nets, monitors school dropouts, offers children health insurance and protects them from arrests." On a parallel note, Nadra Zaki, the child protection project officer at UNICEF, explained that on the advocacy level, UNICEF worked with governmental and non-governmental bodies to support the aforementioned strategy; more recently they have supported NGOs by helping children such as those supported by Hope Village to communicate messages to their peers on the street; they also secured funding for the young street mothers' shelter. Street children ought to be a national priority, as Abu Shehba concluded -- better improve security on the streets than secure them for government authorities: "Those children lost all sense of belonging -- they will grow up to be terrorists if we continue to ignore them."
The children's names were changed and their faces blurred to protect their right to privacy.
Facts and figures
ACCORDING to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, the Regional Office for the Middle East and North Africa's final report on drug abuse among street children in Cairo and Alexandria in 2002 (a study conducted on a sample of 50 children), 86 per cent face violence, 48 per cent face social rejection and 14 per cent do not know how to co-exist; 82 per cent of street children are on the streets because they were abused by their families or at work, 62 per cent due to negligence and 36 per cent due to peer pressure.