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Miserable and unnoticed
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 06 - 08 - 2014


On this cold winter's night
Only poor street children are in sight
No blankets, no shoes
How on earth will they make it through?
- Agendri Naidoo, South Africa
The street on a cold night is sometimes a better shelter for some of Egypt's children than their own homes, at least if 12-year-old street girl Mona is to be believed.
“I have found that the streets can be better and warmer places than home,” Mona was quoted as saying in a recent study by Iman Bibars, a former UNICEF project officer. The study, entitled “Street Children in Egypt: From the Home to the Street to Inappropriate Corrective Institutions,” reveals Mona's heartbreaking story. It began when she was five years old and her father decided to maim her to make her fit for begging with her mother.
Mona was left with only one eye.
Unable to live with her father's brutality, Mona decided to run away. “She was arrested six times and beaten very hard by the police and the women at the institution she was sent to,” writes Bibars in the study. For her, “the streets are also a better place than those horrible prisons” street and juvenile children are sent to.
“I am now a grown-up girl and know how to take care of myself,” Mona said, insisting that she no longer feared her father, nor anyone else, “since no one can hurt me anymore.”
This paper by Bibars, also the chair of the Association for the Development and Enhancement of Low-Income Women in Egypt, a nongovernmental organization (NGO), is an eye-opener regarding the inhumane conditions street children often face and of how poverty, inappropriate laws and finally society itself can force street children towards crime.
Mona is not the only child who has taken to the streets to escape her family and state juvenile institutions. The study, based on interviews with street children on the streets and in corrective institutions, shows how street children, often dismissed as criminals who need to be dealt with, are actually the victims of an abusive and harsh society.
Domestic violence and especially the physical and sexual abuse of children were found to be among the main reasons why children run away from their homes and take to the streets, according to the study. The scenario goes as follows: poverty cause families to break up, usually with domestic violence involved, which then leads children to live on the streets, maybe fall into petty crime, and, finally, end up in corrective institutions that then turn them into professional criminals, according to Bibars's paper.
“Most of the children interviewed in the study have been caught in a vicious circle: he/she starts by being born into a poor or abusive family, drops out of school, goes onto the streets and finally ends up in a corrective institution,” she writes. “Instead of rehabilitation, the child, due to neglect that is underpinned by society's and policy makers' negative attitudes toward him/her, is pushed towards one sort of delinquency or another.”
WHO ARE THE STREET CHILDREN? The term “street children” is used to refer to children who live and work on the streets. These children can either be totally homeless, with no contact with or even knowledge of their families, or they may have run away from home.
Many of the children survive by begging, theft, prostitution, pick-pocketing or selling drugs. They can be seen sleeping in bus shelters, under bridges or in sewage pipes.
The definition is sometimes stretched to include a larger group of children of single mothers or very poor families who work on the streets. These children spend their days at work on the streets, but have a home to go to at the end of the day.
The fact that there is no one definition of who the street children are, whether homeless or having homes but working on the streets, has led to confusion in the statistics and an underestimation of real numbers. The fact that the street children often do not have birth certificates and move from one place to another to survive has added more challenges to finding out more about them.
Sometimes the children go home for a few days or months and then return to the streets afterwards. The only thing that the government and non-governmental organisations agree on is that there are tens of thousands of street children and that their numbers are growing.
“The economic crisis that has hit Egypt has definitely led the number of street children to grow significantly, since there is an inextricable link between poverty, broken homes and street children,” Bibars noted. “But there is no way you can count the number of those living on the streets, simply because the children move from one place to another.”
Bibars, however, insists that a street child should be defined as a child who sleeps on the street and has no home to turn to. “Spending the night on the streets definitely takes the child to a different and far more dangerous category of risks than those who work on the streets and then have a home to turn to at night,” Bibars said. “Sexual abuse that can reach the extent of prostitution and drug addiction are almost inevitable in the case of homeless children.”
Estimates suggest that there are around two million street children in Egypt. According to the website of Plan Organisation, an NGO, “the number of children in street situations in Egypt is not clear, and the official statistics suggest a number between 100,000 and two million, mostly in Cairo and Alexandria.”
Amira Mikhail, a member of the Popular Campaign for the Protection of Children, blogged that other estimates “claimed that there were even up to three million on the streets. With a government resistant to social research and data, the number of children on the streets remains unknown,” she lamented.
But Abla al-Badry, secretary-general of Hope Village, an NGO that has been serving street children for decades, refutes such numbers as “nonsense.” “Those estimates probably count children who work on the streets, but street children should be defined as homeless children who are prone to all types of serious risks, and these range from between 250,000 to 300,000 children nationwide,” Al-Badry told the Weekly.
FOURTH-CLASS CITIZENS: This lack of basic information about street children makes them invisible to the government and perhaps to the whole society, giving them no official documentation, no health insurance and no education. The type of hazards the children are exposed to and the way society frowns at them as possibly dangerous can turn them into “fourth-class citizens,” as one activist put it.
The children lead unhealthy and often dangerous lives that leave them deprived of protection, guidance, and supervision and exposes them to different forms of exploitation and abuse. For many, survival on the streets means begging and sexual exploitation by adults.
Studies by the World Health Organisation (WHO) have shown that street children often suffer from health problems, ranging from cholera to tuberculosis and anemia, and that they are exposed to a variety of toxic substances, both in their food and the environment. In a WHO survey in 2000, 86 per cent of street children identified violence as a major problem in their lives. In another survey, 50 per cent stated that they had been exposed to sexual abuse.
One out of four street children is believed to be a girl, who may face more adverse circumstances than boys, including rape and pregnancy with no access to healthcare, according to Plan.
A 2011 study by Egypt's National Centre for Social and Criminological Research (NCSCR) similarly found that at least 20 per cent of street children were victims of trafficking, in which they are exploited by a third party, most commonly for sexual purposes, and also for forced begging, theft and the sale of narcotics.
The NCSCR study found that 68 per cent of Egypt's street children are aged between six and 11 and that 70 per cent of them were born and raised in urban settings, where communities are not as closely connected as in rural areas and where economic diversity provides more employment chances for the children.
More than 95 per cent of the street children interviewed in the NCSCR study said they were drug addicts, with more than one third of them also involved in drug-related crimes.
The children lead lives that may appear to be “free,” but are in fact governed by their own rules and regulations. “Every area has a leader, sometimes an older street child,” Bibars explained. “It is more hazardous when the leader is a grown-up since children in this case are usually exploited by the leader. Children who take to the streets are exposed to fewer hazards when they end up in a group whose leader is an elder street child,” she said.
A street child leader could also offer protection and shelter to homeless children in return for money and sometimes sex and drugs. “But since such street children were already harshly abused by family and society before they ran away and took to the streets, they find more comfort, or at least sympathy and trust, in the company of other street children, who defend each other against other gangs, adults and the police. They are exploited by the leader of the gang, but they accept this because at least he has not lied to them as others have,” Bibars said.
VICTIMS OF APATHY: Those who have worked with street children agree with Mikhail that “public apathy is one of the main reasons why violence against homeless children goes unnoticed.” To date, the very term street children still carries a lot of negative connotations relating to crime, deviance or vagrancy.
“The public needs to understand that these children are not dangerous, drug-addicted thugs or prostitutes,” Mikhail insisted. “They are not criminals and they are not thieves. They are children without a home, guardianship, shelter or food. They are children who have lost their basic right to live decently and are being used and neglected by society. Their voices are unheard, they are unseen, and they are unprotected and often abused all day every day,” she said.
Until the end of the 1990s, few efforts were made to differentiate between juvenile delinquents and children who lived and worked on the streets or remained there during the day. “According to Egyptian law, all of them fall under the law of ‘children at risk' who are arrested when they are found and sent to custodial institutions for rehabilitation in order to re-admit them into society,” Bibars said.
This has made the work of NGOs in the field “extremely challenging,” she added. “We were alone fighting against the backdrop of a society and government that both frowned on street children as criminals, or as ill-behaved young people who had run away from home,” Al-Badry lamented. “It took us a lot of work to increase awareness that these children had been forced to run away from the brutality of a parent who beat, maimed or even raped them.”
Yet even today some people have a negative view of street children as “parasites” that need to be eliminated if society is to live in peace. A recent article by Nassar Abdallah, a writer for the newspaper Al-Masry Al-Yom, called on the government to solve the problem of street children by force, referring to Brazil in the 1990s, where street children were reportedly “hunted” by people using guns.
The article angered Hani Helal, secretary-general of the Egyptian Coalition for Children's Rights. She is taking legal action against the writer for allegedly “instigating genocide and provoking violence against a social category that should receive care and protection.”
Meanwhile, there have been reports by civil-society workers working in the field that children arrested by the police have been beaten, or exposed to sexual abuse by the police or by adult criminals held in the same facilities.
The custodial institutions these children are sent to, according to Bibars, compound the problems rather than solve them. “The staff employed in these institutions are unqualified. They tend to look at the children as criminals and know absolutely nothing about how to deal with them,” Bibars explained. “Institutionalised children are exposed to all kinds of violence and sexual abuse that actually turns them into criminals when they get out,” she added.
Civil-society groups have, however, been working on the issue and have managed to gradually change negative attitudes toward street children. “The government and the public at large have begun to see these children as the victims of society and of broken families rather than as criminals and the instigators of violence,” said Bibars. “The very mention of street children in the campaigns preceding the presidential elections is in itself a way forward.”
Today, there are at least 18 NGOs working with street children in Egypt, providing them with food, shelter and health services to improve their lives, or educating, training and empowering them. Many of the projects are supported by UNICEF, the UN children's agency, and WHO.
Al-Badry, who has advocated for street children's rights since the 1980s, recalled her efforts to support young street mothers who were the victims of rape. She lobbied for them to receive birth certificates for their children. The mothers were usually institutionalised, and their undocumented babies were put in orphanages.
“Resistance was very high from both the government and society to accept the concept that such girls were the victims of abuse, that they had been forced into prostitution in order to eat, for example, or could have been killed by gang leaders giving them food and shelter,” Al-Badry said. “It took us a lot of effort to convince people that it was a matter of national security for these children to have IDs and that it was their right to be with their mothers.”
The advocacy paid off, and the Child Law for 2008 was amended in a way that allowed the children of street mothers to have IDs carrying their mothers' names. “Since then, we've been receiving these mothers and their children in our centre for the rehabilitation of young street mothers in Moqattam, where they receive all the care they need,” Al-Badry said.
The Hope Village now has 198 resident street children who are given access to healthcare and education. It also receives between 1,500 to 2,000 children at its rehabilitation centres, where they receive training and food for a few hours each day.
“Children come to us willingly, and they are first placed in the rehabilitation reception centre for a few hours, until they trust the place and decide to stay and abide by our rules,” Al-Badry said. “Through rehabilitation we have managed to turn the negative energy of these children into something positive, and now we have children who win championships and get medals in sports like karate and win competitions in music and art. Some have been chosen to join the orchestra of the musician Selim Sehab.”
Despite the efforts made by such NGOs to help street children, Bibars says that “they still serve only a fraction of the children and cannot uproot the problem because they treat the symptoms, not the cause. The phenomenon of street children is the direct result of poverty and broken homes, and without tackling these two issues the problem will remain and even grow into a real menace to society,” she said.
During the Mubarak era, the National Council for Childhood and Motherhood (NCCM) issued recommendations that the children should have access to public health. But, as Bibars explained, “there was no political will to put the policy into effect at the time.”
Experts agree that the issue of street children cannot be solved unless society changes its view toward street children, poverty and unemployment are tackled, and street children are provided with IDs and health insurance. “The only way to do this is to gain the trust of these children, who have lost all trust in society,” Bibars said. To do that, she concluded, “there must be real political will to solve the problem of street children.”
STREET CHILDREN IN THE REVOLUTION: Al-Badry said that the 25 January Revolution that put an end to the 30-year rule of deposed former president Hosni Mubarak was a turning point in the lives of many street children.
Street children, also seen as a Mubarak-era legacy, were often involved in one way or another in the Revolution, sometimes on the side of protesters, who offered food and camaraderie, and sometimes on the side of paid pro-Mubarak thugs throwing stones and Molotov cocktails at the protesters. Activists reported one incident where at least one street child was killed by the police, and many such children, suspected of provoking political unrest, were rounded up and held in police stations.
Although Bibars says that the street children joined the Revolution in search of food and shelter, many activists, including Al-Badry, say that they also participated in the hope of change. Some children have said that they felt happy when they saw police stations burning during the Revolution.
Many activists have related stories that show that the Revolution had a positive impact on street children, who suddenly felt the streets could be “a vehicle for change,” that they were “part of something,” and that the revolutionary masses were their “guests,” since they considered the streets to belong to them. However, such feelings made the work of many NGOs harder because it was difficult to convince the children that the streets were a bad thing when the children now saw them as a place where people could try to make change.
In the wake of the revolution, however, the voices of the street children have remained largely unheard. Amid the political unrest and economic adversity that have gripped Egypt since 2011, street children have remained among the country's most marginalised and underprivileged. They stand at the back of a long queue of people who hope to gain from change.
“They were soon frustrated that nothing seemed to have happened, and they started to lose any sense of belonging to the country,” Al-Badry said. “This loss of national sentiment soon turned into violence. Today's street children are much more violent than those of the past. Some of them are no longer interested in our rehabilitation centres, and they prefer to remain in the streets because that is where they get paid for all sorts of thuggery or crime. Today, a street child may even be capable of killing, which is completely unlike a child of the eighties and nineties who used to commit petty crimes in order to eat.”
Al-Badry insists that such changes cannot be solved through the work of NGOs alone, since they have no authority over the children and cannot “round them up.” Both Al-Badry and Bibars call on Egypt's armed forces to intervene before the problem is “blown out of all proportion.”
“The solution remains in the hands of Egypt's armed forces, which can round up the children and recruit some of them for the military institutions where strict discipline and the presence of a good example can help them become good citizens,” Al-Badry said.
Many, however, remain sceptical. The Egyptian Coalition for Children's Rights is critical of such suggestions, seeing them as a kind of “forced militarisation of children that contradicts international law” and may even further alienate the children from society.
While the problem remains, Al-Badry urges members of the public to call the Hope Village (202-22728683/202-22724563) to report any street children they meet who are in need of care.


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