By Mona Fat
Seeing children playing, having fun, affectionately cuddled in their parents protective embrace with no care whatsoever in the world, watching children even being difficult and giving their parents a hard time warms my heart, as this is the way things are meant to be. However, witnessing and seeing children in all streets of Cairo each and every single day sleeping, eating, working on the streets; thus deprived of guidance, safety from any kind of danger, adult supervision, a stable source of living, and the basic need to be loved within the care of a family just breaks my heart.
The phenomenon of street children in Egypt has lately been a rising and threatening one, and in spite of the seriousness of this problem there is very little viable data on the number of street children and on the severity of the circumstances they face and the abuse they are subjected to. First and foremost the high mobility of those children living on the street complicates matters in the way of conducting any survey that could be counted on as a reference that would help in starting to fully understand the facts. One of the numbers we can go back to is that of the 42,505 children arrested in 2001, out of which 10,958 were charged with being vulnerable to delinquency. Street children are not this alien phenomenon that we can talk about, sympathize a little with their everyday dilemmas and then distance ourselves away from thinking about the whole matter. The whole subject has become a matter for us to dismiss as being more than we could take.
First things first, there must be reasons that pushed these children on the streets and stay there moving from one street to the other. Well, in fact, the reasons vary from the large family size accompanied by the low educational level of the parents which gives no chance for proper individual care of children to the fact that many families live on a very low income. Domestic violence is also a main reason for children to run away to the streets after failing to put up and deal with the violence and abuse at home. Another reason is the re-marriage of one of the parents which often disrupts matters. There are many known reasons for children dropping out of school and taking to the streets (mostly low income families), but the fact remains that whatever the reason is, the consequences and the realities the children themselves face are of far more tragic effects on the social structure and most importantly on the lives of the children who actually do not have a life as we know it.
Numbers are an integral part of our daily lives, and sometimes numbers shove disturbing facts right into our face. UNICEF estimates say that there are between 200,000 to one million homeless or street children in Egypt, and as you can quite easily guess the numbers are not on their way to decrease. These children face great threats that we only deal with as something we watch on TV or read in a newspaper, meaning they face the danger of illness and infections, hunger, sexual abuse, physical violence and exposure to an open world where anything can happen and drugs are passed easily from one hand to the other. To make things more complicated and difficult to deal with, society treats street children with cautious guarded pity and repulsion at their bad language use and ragged dishevelled dirty clothes. These children grow up missing out on all the basics they are entitled to, they grow up with no sense of routine and order and with no healthy family structure or positive involvement in their societies.
They ultimately grow up deprived of their childhood and hating society. Furthermore, it becomes extremely difficult to try and incorporate street or homeless children back into the mainstream structure of society after having chosen to leave home and face the street on their own. Regarding efforts to deal with this impending crisis, there is not enough coordination between government resources and the work of NGOs established to help the children (although NGOs are more active when it comes to helping street children).
What can be done to help street or homeless children? The National Council for Childhood and Motherhood in collaboration with different NGOs, has introduced a hotline (1600) to try and protect the children. Honestly, NGOs are doing a tremendous amount of extremely efficient work including setting up shelters and reception centers and many other facilities intended to try and accommodate the growing number of children choosing to leave home for good at a younger age than before. At an age when they are supposed to follow rules and develop an ethical and moral sense of what is right and what is wrong, these children in spite of the fact of getting exploited and abused on a physical and psychological level, live in full unsupervised freedom that becomes hard to give up.
Most of the children on the streets find conditions at their homes to be overbearing to the extent that life on the unsafe streets seems like a delightful treat. However, alas what is awaiting them on the streets is of damaging consequences on the long run. Is it not enough that these children often suffer physical and psychological damage that affects the rest of their adult lives making it impossible for them to even try to socialise? Or what about the fact that society as a whole just simply shuts these children out treating them like they do not have the right to ask for anything (Haven’t they chosen life on the streets and haven’t they steered towards a life of crime?)
What can we do to help? “You know you have different options when you see a street child at a cross road trying to beg some money or is in a bad situation. You can either call the hotline from your mobile phone ask where the nearest Hope Shelter is and take them there. Or you can even arrange for a pick up of the kids by the shelter at the place where you met them through calling the hotline. At the shelter they get the chance to shower, get their clothes cleaned up and a hot meal apart from mental support. These shelters are a port for stranded children after often hitting rock bottom. Unfortunately, there are no sleep over shelters yet so after being refreshed the kids are sent back again, yet with the certainty to be able to return any time for shelter. It is a step ahead at least”, comments Khaled Abol Naga, Egyptian actor and Goodwill Ambassador.
Another way to help is to be compassionate and have empathy with those children. An indicator of the level of civilisation of a nation is how they the less fortunate. I will not even try to indicate the Egyptian level of civilisation as we lack in the proper treatment of the less fortunate to an extreme. Street children are faced with violence all their lives and often failed to hear comforting words or experience tender touches so why do we have to make this worse by ignoring them at the junction? Nice words work wonders, even if it is a drop in the ocean. Apart from that you can organize free meals to be distributed among the children by gathering some friends and sacrificing a weekend. There are many small and major things people can do. Don’t look the other way.
What we need so that the picture does not get any dimmer is more awareness campaigns informing people extensively on the severity of this crisis and on how to deal with and perceive street or homeless children, launching more aid agencies and initiatives to help the children, raising awareness among security forces on how to handle children living on the streets and joining efforts between civil society, media and the government to try and save them. Children are a gift from God, so is it not our job to protect them from all dangers? Well let us try to work on that all year long not just in Ramadan.