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In Egypt, non-profit shelters struggle to protect and rehabilitate hundreds of thousands of children left to the volatile street life of crime, drugs and sexual abuse, while a poorly implemented child law passed four years ago has failed to protect them against police brutality and social ostracism.

In a tiny, poorly lit shelter in Alexandria, a 10-month-old baby boy crawls across the tiles as his mother, sixteen-year-old Hanaa* watches listlessly, her frail body sunken into a couch.  Hanaa ran away from home after she was raped and left pregnant by her older brother. She repeatedly attempted suicide and tried to abort her own pregnancy while living on the streets of Alexandria before social workers brought her to this shelter run by Hope Village Society (HVS).

Hanaa’s case is sadly not unique. She is one of hundreds of thousands of Egyptian children who have fled abusive homes to live on the streets. As one social worker puts it, any girl living on the streets in Egypt will inevitably be raped and abused.  

Street children are among the main groups at risk of exposure to HIV/AIDs in Egypt, and are also susceptible to addiction; in fact, two-thirds of them resort to drug abuse, according to a 2001 Rapid Situation Assessment (RSA) by the UN Office for Drug Control and Crime Prevention. The RSA report also attributed the existence of street children to the economic marginalization of many Egyptian families, which in turn makes the family structure seriously dysfunctional.

Shelters like HVS work hard to provide protection and both medical and social rehabilitation for street children like Hanaa, but given the prevailing negative stereotype against street children in Egypt, financial and community support are often hard to find.

“People are less likely to donate to street children’s shelters than to orphanages,” says Tarek Mohamed of the HVS Alexandria shelter. “Many view these kids as dirty, criminals and drug addicts; as if they deserve the life they lead. I think they’d prefer that street kids disappear from their sight rather than deal with the problem.”

Alia Mosalam, an activist who has worked with street children through various organizations since 2002, puts the blame on government neglect.

“The biggest issue is that there is absolutely no support from the government towards working with street children,” she says. “All the NGOs that opened in the 90s were constantly shut down. Survival was about working despite the government not with the government.”

Egypt’s dire economic situation is taking its toll on HVS, and has forced the organization to shut down its four mobile units and freeze plans to expand its shelter in Mokatam to accept more street children. Currently, dozens of street babies and toddlers are living in a cramped and poorly ventilated basement of a mosque nearby.

Rawah Badrawi, a community worker and author who visited the mosque basement, believes that such shelters can save future generations from the vicious cycle of crime and abuse on the streets. “If they’re raised on the street, these children’s lives will be tragic as they turn to crime and drugs to survive, constantly exposed to the threat of abuse, rape or violence,” she says.  “It’s critical at this point to help HVS expand its shelters for babies and young children since they have a fighting chance at rehabilitation when compared to, say, those who arrive at the shelters at an older age having already suffered what seems like a lifetime of trauma.”

As many of them lack legal identification papers and are wary of being interviewed, it is difficult to accurately estimate the number of street children in Egypt. One often quoted estimate by the UN is that there are one million street children, while the Egyptian government set the number at a more conservative 30,000.

In 2008, the 1996 Child Law was amended so that the definition of street children was changed from ‘vulnerable to delinquency’ to ‘children at risk’, thus legally defining them as victims, not criminals. The amended law also changed the legal age for street children to be criminalized from the age of seven to twelve. Furthermore, the law stated that if arrested and detained, children should be separated from adults in detention centers.

Despite these ostensible changes, lawyers and activists argue that legislation was not developed to ensure the law’s implementation. Magda Boutros, Criminal Justice Director at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) worked on the 2008 law and found it to be “flawed but still better than our present situation.”

“The law itself was a great advance for street children’s rights, but it has not been implemented,” she said. “It lacks detailed legislation, so the maltreatment of street kids continues. The police force remains the main authority dealing with them, and they continue to use the same security practices as before; beating and torturing street children in detention and falsely implicating them in legal cases just to keep them in prison and off the streets.”

Abdul Samie Labib Abdul Samie, manager of the Haram Shelter at Banat El Ghad Foundation, an NGO which currently houses 107 children agrees. “The law hasn’t changed anything; police still treat these street kids as criminals, not victims,” he says. As an example, Abdul Samie pointed out that up until recently, it was common practice for policemen to arrest and detain a monthly quota of street children to earn their bonuses.

Inside prisons, he noted that street children were especially vulnerable. “They have no families, no lawyers to ask after them, often no legal identification, which means they have no protection against abuse in detention.”

“Even though a recent fatwa declared that charity to street children is the same as charity to orphans, our society is still wary of street children due to this social stigma that they are criminals,” Abdul Samie says.

Mosalam insists that the continuing common practice torture and abuse of street children inside police stations shows that the Ministry of Interior had never implemented the 2008 Child Law.

“Begging is a legitimate reason for officers to arrest street kids and despite the law forbidding this, the kids are still placed in the same detention cells as much older criminals and psychopaths who then rape them,” she says, adding that the stories of abuse and rape that she’d collected from street children were horrific.

“They’re raped repeatedly by policemen and prisoners, they’re forced to work as informants and aides in sting operations for the police, and if they refuse, the policemen gang-rape them. Sometimes they gang-rape them in either case.”

Mosalam says the solution is very simple. “The Ministry of Interior needs to implement the child law and protect these street children. It’s not rocket science.”

While the Minister of Insurance and Social Affairs, Nagwa Khalil has allocated 17 million EGP (approximately $3 million) to build a housing project for children, the plan is tainted by implications of a “self sufficient city” which will further segregate these children from society. Children will not be allowed to leave unless they meet certain conditions, including access to employment or a stable source of income.

HVS and Banat El Ghad Foundation are just two of a handful of non-profit shelters operating in Egypt, and activist Farida El Kalagy, a member of the Popular Campaign for the Protection of Children, says the number of shelters is too meager to contain the growing population of street children.

“Statistically, only a very small number of street kids actually go to the shelters,” she explains, adding that a new government strategic plan is necessary to protect street children legally and provide them with social rehabilitation and integration.

“The government needs to stop the arbitrary detention of these children; they should not be treated as criminals while in custody or detention,” she says. “The Ministry of Interior should investigate and penalize officials who abuse children, and it should enable the children themselves to lodge complaints and file lawsuits against their abusers.”

Soraya Morayef is a journalist and writer based in Cairo. She blogs under suzeeinthecity.wordpress.com

Photo Credit: Roy Gunnels

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