For children, mean Egyptian streets

Some groups say up to two million youths live on nation's roads and the country has done little to help them.
A street child eats on the side of the road on Wednesday in Cairo.
A street child eats on the side of the road on Wednesday in Cairo.

CAIRO // The brightly coloured paintings of birds, trees and traffic lights that were on display at the Rawabet Gallery last week in downtown Cairo were typical of those drawn by children - but the artists were not typical children. The Clouds art exhibition, which also showed sculptures, plays and musical performances, was the work of children living on the streets. Many of those whose work was on display had run away from abusive homes, and were now begging or selling odds and ends to make a living.

"I beg. I'm ashamed that this is what I do, but sometimes I'm very hungry," said Galal Osama, 14, who ran away from his family in southern Egypt after his mother died and his father remarried. "Living with my stepmother became unbearable. I was blamed for everything, even if her baby [his half-brother] fell over, it's my fault, and she beats me for it," he said, his eyes welling with tears. "When I tried to return home a few days after running away, my father slammed the door in my face," he said. "I'm not regretting leaving home, I'm better this way."

Galal, who is illiterate and was abused when he took a job as a mechanic's assistant, said he now spends his days at the Al Mawa (The Shelter) Association, a local non-governmental organisation (NGO), and sleeps in a nearby public garden. The art exhibition was organised with the support of Unicef, the United Nations children's agency, and Al Mawa was one of five NGOs that participated. These organisations are working on establishing a network to provide improved services to homeless children in an effort to offer alternatives to street life.

"There are tens of thousands of those children who don't have any means for entertainment and feel isolated. Some people think they are criminals and treat them as such," said Hala Abu Khatwa, chief of communication at Unicef, Egypt. "This venue was given to the children to express themselves, reconnect with society and also engage with people in a normal social context and have a personal rapport with them," she said.

There are no official figures for the number of street children in Egypt, but some estimates put the number at two million. Unicef estimates that 2.7 million children between the ages of six and 14 in Egypt work. According to official statistics, one-third of Egypt's 78 million population is younger than 15. NGOs said that among those, 10 per cent are forced to work, often in difficult conditions World Health Organization studies show that many street children suffer from health problems ranging from cholera to tuberculosis and anaemia.

But forced labour and health problems are only some of many perils faced by homeless children. Last year, two leaders of an Egyptian gang were sentenced to death for raping and killing at least three, and possibly up to 26, street children in Cairo and northern Egypt. When an independent newspaper revealed the case almost two years ago, it caused a public outcry. At the same time, Tahani Rached, an Egyptian-Canadian filmmaker, released a documentary about girls living on the streets called El Banat Dol (Those Girls). One had a baby and did not know the father, while another recounted how she was kidnapped for 10 days, during which time she was repeatedly gang-raped by more than 30 men.

The film was shocking for Egyptians, most of whom are ignorant of the world of street children. Since then, at least two movies, Heyna Maysara (Until Things Get Better) and El Ghaba (The Jungle), have addressed the issue, confronting widely held perceptions of street children as a social irritant, with the reality which they face every day - a world of drugs, forced prostitution and violence. In recent years, the government has begun to grasp the severity of child homelessness in Egypt and has taken action.

In 2003, The National Council for Childhood and Motherhood, headed by Suzanne Mubarak, Egypt's first lady, launched the National Strategy for the Protection and Rehabilitation of Street Children in association with Unicef, which aims to provide such basic services as sanitation, food and shelter. A new law that was passed last month introduced severe penalties to protect children - most of whom are homeless - from being exploited in the workplace. Under the new law, anyone found to have forced children younger than the minimum age - 14 - to work will face prison sentences of between three and six months.

Still, the vast majority of support that is available to street children is provided by NGOs. Ola Ragab, 14, another participant at the exhibition, spent prolonged periods living on the streets with her mother, and was even imprisoned for begging, before receiving help from Caritas Egypt, a charity organisation. "[When] we were sleeping in the street, [we were] always haunted by the fear of being raped. [We] were arrested and spent four months in a women's prison with my mother ? I was beaten badly there, I felt I was going to die there.

"Now I'm learning painting and acting at Caritas," she said. "I will no longer go back to what I was doing."

Published: July 3, 2008 04:00 AM


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