There was no mistaking the horror this six year old girl was experiencing. Nothing more telling of the fear than the warm yellow fluid running down her short legs as her knees started to visibly shake. There was little mistaking the heartbeats escalate as the quiver of her little lips began. Following her gaze to the door of the drop in centre for street children she was at, an angry man with blank eyes stood gazing right at her. Her father had found out where she was spending the day.
There is little the staff at day care centres can do to stop fathers or mothers coming to take their children, little they can do even if they had signed them in to permanent shelters. The law handicaps those who are trying to protect vulnerable children from abusive parents. Staff had to watch Taghreed be pulled by the wrist as she wet herself leaving the shelter, which she had escaped one afternoon’s scorching sun to. All they could do was pray that they would see her again, minus the scars and bruises she had returned to them with previously.
Taghreed is not a lone street child. She has lived all her small number of years on the street with her father and mothers and siblings. They are travellers living on the streets of the cities they migrate back and forth between depending on which had a “mowlid” that the father could use his kids to sell little plastic toys or to beg if that didn’t work. Our society is one of alms, of course, but to care about where those alms went or what would be more effective than giving a few pounds, rarely is the case.
Taghreed didn’t like selling stuff for which her father took all her money; she didn’t like her father either – understandably. When Taghreed found her way back after a couple of weeks to the day care centre, the psychologist asked her why she was so afraid of her father when she was such a strong little girl herself. Without shame, Taghreed recounted the ways in which her father ties her up in metal chains, locking the shackles at her ankles and wrists and beating her till he can no longer lift a finger. Many street kids lie to gain sympathy in hope for a pound or two. But Taghreed knew Shaimaa was not going to give her money. Taghreed’s body bared witness to the genuineness of her account.
Taghreed eventually ran away. She shaved her hair, bound her breasts and lived as a boy trying to protect herself on the streets. She tells me she could forgive those who did her wrong on the street far more than the parents she knew were meant to protect her. Taghreed is one of the most special and beautiful girls I have known. She is trustworthy and loyal and never forgets a good deed done for her. As she sits holding her cheerful 5-month-old baby, she tells me her dream is to get ID for her and her child. That’s it – that is what she dreams of. But it’s a dream none of us, who love and care about her, have found easy to realise for her. Taghreed’s parents are not married; her father beats her every time she goes to try to convince him to go with her to get an ID issued and bureaucracy means she cannot get it done without him.
So unlike women fighting for equal rights, for employment rights, for child care rights, for divorce rights, Taghreed is a young woman fighting for the right to exist in the state, the right to be recognised as a citizen, the right, in her own words “to be human”. These are not things that we, as a society, can cure with giving a few pounds to passing street kids we feel sorry for, or a few pounds of meat during Eid to satisfy religious obligation.
We must, as the “honourable” citizens we like to think of ourselves as, be outraged that some are still fighting to be missed when they are dead, to hold pieces of paper that ensure the basic treatment at hospital if they fall ill, a basic education even if wont take them anywhere. We must be so outraged that this rage brings about change. We must refuse the social contracts we are in if they do not embrace those too poor, too weak, too scared to fight their way into our worlds – worlds in which we have become so blind that we are surprised to hear that some do not hold ID. I know someone who had their ID issued the same day it was requested while they were in a foreign country because they had the money and connections. Taghreed has spent ten years of her life being beaten and abused, travelling back and forth with money she has hated making and to no avail.
If you are reading this and know any way to help Taghreed get her ID without her father having to be there, without her parents having to be married, email me: email@example.com – Taghreed and I need to hear from you. If you can’t, then tell everyone you know – tell them that before we concern ourselves with which hand to eat with so the devil doesn’t join us, we must extend that hand to those whose wrists are tied in chains, before we concern ourselves with never entering the toilet with our left foot, we must first concern ourselves with lifting the feet that step on the weak because their voices don’t make their way to our ears. Taghreed once gave herself to a violent gang rape to save a new virgin on the street – the least that sort of loyalty deserves is ID.
Nelly Ali is a PhD student and lecturer at the University of London and ANglia Ruskin University in Cambridge. She works with street children in Egypt and has a particular passion for working with street girls in Cairo. She is a volunteer Project Manager at Hope Village, an NGO that has been working with street kids since 1988. You can follow her on twitter @nellyali. Correspondence: firstname.lastname@example.org