“Break a girl’s rib and she will grow twenty-four.” This is a popular saying between the working class in Egypt. This is often what we are told when we mediate between a street girl and the family whose abuse she has escaped. Hitting a girl is seen to be beneficial to her and a form of discipline that will do her more good than harm. The cultural acceptance and even the expectation of violence towards girls make it difficult to enrage society into campaigning for enforcement of laws that protect the children. One member of staff complains that she hears her neighbours electrocute their daughter every night and there is nothing they can do but bang on the doors and shout till the torture stops. It is because of a lack of law enforcement that the NGO was unable to stop Maya taking her daughter away from the shelter when she left in a moment of rage, even though she is known to cause her grievous bodily harm.
At best, the violence the child is subjected to is done with the intention of discipline; at worst it is of abuse. Eventually, a child who decides they can no longer tolerate this violence and turns to the street cannot access permanent shelter without signed consent of their legal guardian. This is, of course, problematic, not only because the child is escaping violence from that person, but also because the parents refuse to sign claiming it is less damaging to their honor for the child to be on the street than their neighbors and family knowing their child is in an institution.
“The cultural acceptance and even the expectation of violence towards girls make it difficult to enrage society into campaigning for enforcement of laws that protect the children.”
Street girls are also usually victims of incest or sexual abuse from their stepfathers. Of the ten girls currently at the shelter, one fourteen year old girl was sexually abused by her stepfather since she was nine years old, on discovering this, her mother took her to hospital for a virginity check after her husband denied the abuse. He paid the hospital staff to issue a fake report and in Cairo, subjected to another virginity test, a report was issued that she is no longer a virgin and with this report she has been submitted to the Moqattam shelter. One-year-old Lamia is daughter to thirteen year old Samira who was raped by both her mother and father. Lamia has abandoned Samira at the shelter from fear of the responsibility and no one knows where she has turned to. Perhaps one of the most severe cases the NGO is currently dealing with is of Heidi, an incredibly beautiful fourteen-year old girl whose uncle had chained her for three months in the same position, raping her daily. He only let her go when she promised to join his prostitution ring; in which he had his sister, her mother, working. As soon as he undid the chains, she ran out of the window and threw herself. Passers by took the broken boned girl to the police station who then referred the girl to HVS.
Sexual violence does not stop at home for the girls. Rape and violence towards girls are almost synonymous with being on the street. Most of the girls at the shelter bare a curved scar on the side of their face or under their eye. There is a specific culture of rape on the streets of Cairo which none of those working with the children has been able to fully understand. Once a girl is raped for the first time, she is then deeply cut, usually by a pen knife or a piece of glass, in a curved manner, to mark that she is no longer a virgin, subsequent rapes are recorded on her face by smaller cuts across her face. This is the same if a boy has been raped. Administering first aid at the busy Sayeda Zainab day care reception centre, the shelter manager records that this type of violence is the most common that they deal with, one that they record more than once a day. One girl seeking refuge at the shelter received sixteen stitches on her back as she tried to run away from her attackers, saving her face.
It is perhaps difficult to understand HVS’s decision to separate virgin street girls from street mothers once the children have decided to move into permanent shelter and off the street. HVS is the only organization in Egypt that offers services to young street mothers and both the police and governmental social services refer cases to them. The staff and management have had to learn by trial and error. I had been a strong critic of the decision to keep the virgin girls at the 10th Ramadan shelter and the mothers or those girls who had been raped at the Moqattam shelter, but having witnessed an incident at Moqattam, I came to understand why this decision needed to be made. After an exception to the rule had been made to keep Laila, a 17-year-old virgin, at the Moqattam shelter because she was much older than the girls at the 10th Ramadan, the young street mothers had taken to her presence negatively and took everything she said turning it to offense and bought it back to her thinking she was better than them because she was a virgin.
“Once a girl is raped for the first time, she is then deeply cut, usually by a pen knife or a piece of glass, in a curved manner, to mark that she is no longer a virgin.”
A few days after Leila’s arrival, one of the young street mothers, Maya who had suffered an incredible amount of violence in her life since the age of 3, stood up in a group therapy session saying she would “destroy” Leila and “break” her so that she is like the rest of the girls and so she no longer thinks she is better than them. It transpired that Maya and the rest of the girls had arranged a kidnapping of Leila where they had agreed with a few street boys to rape her and scar her to “stamp her” and let everyone know she was as good as the rest of them. It was not only Leila who would be attacked however. During this incident of rage, Maya took a razor out of her mouth, slashed her stomach in frustration, swung her 9-month-old daughter by the wrist across the room, cut the psychologists arm and decided to leave the shelter. This is not an unusual event and the staff at the shelter deal with similar incidents almost on a daily basis. During the feedback session on what had happened that day, it was pointed out to me that this was the reason management had made the segregation and it was decided that night to send Leila away so that she is kept safe.
Maya is perhaps the most difficult case the organization has dealt with to date. She has been using the services for 10 years. Her mother and father separated when she was three years old. Her stepmother drew a circle in front of the bathroom for Maya where she was to sleep, play, eat, and urinate. At the age of six, her stepmother decided she was allowed out of the circle to serve her new sisters who would end up going to school, unlike Maya. One day, Maya burned the rice and her stepmother cracked Maya’s skull. When Maya ran to her father complaining, he tied her on the roof, stripped her naked and beat her for trying to cause problems at home. It was soon after this that Maya decided to get on a train to Cairo – she was seven years old. It was a few weeks after this day when Maya was raped for the first time and a file was created for her. It took six years to convince her father to sign her in to the shelter. During this time, Maya was in and out of police stations, correctional institutions and on the street. The day before her father had signed his consent, Maya was arrested for a mugging attack; which she offered to take the blame for to gain status in the street group she had recently joined. Faking her age and identity, Maya was sentenced to three years in an adults prison at the age of thirteen. One year after she had served her sentence, Maya married a man who often beat her and is now serving a ten year sentence for selling drugs. Maya is a chronic self-harmer and subjects her baby to an incredible amount of daily violence.
HVS sent one of it’s staff on a nine hour bus ride to a part of upper Egypt after a call from one of the ex street children, fourteen-year-old Mirna, at the mothers’ shelter when she called asking the NGO to save her daughter who had been locked up with the stock for three days by her parents who claimed she had bought the family shame. The neglect of the eight-month-old baby is another type of violence the girls at the shelter report. Mirna displays schizophrenic behaviour and is thought to be one of the most gentle child mothers to have accessed HVS. She spent most of her pregnancy term at the shelter and was hoping that once she had the baby, her parents would be spoken into accepting her and her child. Mirna tells staff that having to live separately to her daughter is the worse type of violence her parents have inflicted on her.
The children at one of the HVS shelters, for under-fives, are home to eleven children who have been left by their street mothers. The children are often taken away on family visits. The staff know that these visits mean the toddlers and babies will be used as begging tools by their parents and bought back to the shelter with lice, skin rashers and difficult behaviour. Four-year-old Reem is often taken for these visits by her father. Her last visit lasted three months. When she returned and was asked how her time away was, she told staff: “Heba dropped a glass and so daddy tied us up and he hit me here (she shows pulls up her T-shirt to show the bruises covering her back). He stopped hitting me when I wet myself, but then he started hitting my mum. When I grow up I want to be a policewoman, I want to kill my dad.”
“Girls, more than boys, are used by older street children for both begging and prostitution and are a significant source of income for those who offer the girls protection in return for their loyalty and obedience.”
One of the greatest difficulties the NGO faces is dealing with street leaders who have lost a significant source of income, in the form of the street girls, to the shelters. Girls, more than boys, are used by older street children for both begging and prostitution and are a significant source of income for those who offer the girls protection in return for their loyalty and obedience. It is an every day occurrence at the day care centres, in particular, to have to resort to the help of the police during and after attacks on both the children and the staff when the street leader finds the girl that has gone missing and comes to take her by force. It is because they are usually submissive to the street leaders that girls are not the aggressors on the street. HVS note that the girls are not the muggers, but can be used as the pickpockets and petty thieves; the girls will not be the ones who physically harm or kill someone, but may be used as accomplices and props for such crime, a prop and not an instigator. The cases the charity has dealt with finds that the girls have been threatened to take up this role. The only exception to this is usually prostitution, where HVS have dealt with girls who lead the rest.
Perhaps there is nothing more telling of the violence the street girls have suffered than to watch them jump out of bed into the corner of their rooms crouching over their babies when the door is opened by one of the social workers. This and the flinching of the children at any quick or sudden movement is very difficult to deal with, even for the social workers who know the girl’s stories and who have seen this repeated every time. It is the NGO’s aim to help these children “sleep with both eyes shut”, as Dr. El-Badry, General Secretary for HVS always says.
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