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| Street children enjoying the puppet show, exploring their artistic talents and befriending children from Al-Sayeda Zeinab district on their special day
Much fun attended on puppet shows, musical performances and colour at the Sayeda Zeinab Park on 23 February, the day set aside for street children by some 25 NGOs under the slogan "Street children: society’s responsibility". Some 100 street children blended in with others who had come with their families; and it was impossible to tell them apart. Street children had made the news over the last few months when one of them was charged with raping and killing others — by luring them onto the top of a "torbini" fast train and eventually throwing them off. Assaults, human and drug trafficking and the organs trade further threw the problem into relief, pointing to the violence street children experience on a daily basis and the often violent exploitation behind their running away from home — child labour, premature marriage and a range of other human rights abuses which are often accompanied by dropping out of school.
Efforts to address the problem have been sporadic. For one thing, in 2003 the National Council for Childhood and Motherhood (NCCM) launched a "national strategy for street children", conceived in partnership with various government bodies and NGOs as well as social organisations and UNICEF. It has yet to be implemented, however — a step that hangs on the initiative of the Ministry of Social Solidarity. On the other hand, NGOs took the lead last Friday in an attempt to speed things up. "We propose that this should be an annual street children day," Nawla Darwish, founder of the New Woman Foundation, one of the key partners, announced. "Whether the state will embrace the idea is up to them, though the issue has obviously caught people’s attention. We do not claim that we will solve the problem — it’s the responsibility of society at large." Rather, the aim is to reaffirm the existence and suffering of thousands of children in the absence of sufficient legislation; and Darwish hopes to change the social image of street children as well: "we must stop seeing them as criminals; they were not born to live on the streets — they are in fact victims. And through awareness campaigns, civil society joining efforts with the media — we might be able to change the stereotype."
Ahmed Abdel-Alim, executive director of Al-Taawon Association for Children, agreed that bridging the gap between street children and the rest of society is important; he hopes that a point can be reached where people would not yell at them and close their car windows in their faces: "street children reflect a socio- economic problem to which poverty is key, but we lack a creative approach to relations with others and ourselves; poverty, bad education, lack of economic and social awareness, inability to make use of our resources to the full." Abdel-Alim speaks of a more comprehensive approach capable of bypassing current complications, and he professes inspiration in Nobel laureate Mohamed Younes, who invented micro-credit in Bangladesh: "he started out with $100 and ended up with $15 billion, which saved millions of lives. I think we should come up with similar ideas to combat poverty and improve education." The day itself seemed to reflect the drive to break the taboo on street children, who were having fun with their peers. Hossam Hassan, 14, says he has befriended street children in his neighbourhood. "They are very kind," he enthuses. "We play together…"
For his part civil servant Ramadan Abdel-Hakam, the father of two, embraces the idea wholeheartedly, adding that such celebrations should be more frequent: "maybe once a month — it reminds you to cherish your own children." Only it confuses him that these children are still wandering the streets: "how come they are still out there? In a population of 70 million, there aren’t enough people to spare LE5-10 to provide for them? And as a society, how come we are unable to face this problem? I believe legal penalties should be imposed on people who throw out their children." But it is never that simple. According to Nadra Zaki, child protection project officer at UNICEF, "the prospects are not as encouraging as we had hoped a couple of months ago." Despite a high-profile meeting involving Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif, the NCCM Secretary Mushira Khattab and representatives of the Ministry of Social Solidarity last January, the latter — charged with implementing the project, as opposed to monitoring, awareness raising and capacity building, which are the work of the NCCM — "remains silent". Alarming Zaki in particular are reports by Caritas Egypt, an NGO based in Haram, that street children are being arrested by the police: "we have no numbers but we don’t know that it is happening and we don’t know where they go or what they go through. In the end they find themselves back on the streets, and since many of them are survivors, they cope."
On a more positive note, Zaki says concerned parties are at least talking to each other: "the government, NGOs, international organisations like UNICEF, the minister himself… We are all to blame for the fact that procedures are slower than they might be." Last Friday strengthens the movement, and would have been even more encouraging had more human rights organisations participated. More partnerships are needed, with Hope Village — the first NGO dedicated to street children — and other parties, since the emphasis is on the message, not the end results. Zaki highlights plans, which she hopes will be more openly discussed, concerning the treatment of street children at police stations and the lack of sufficient social work — thought to be the root problem. "It should not be so difficult, it’s not different from women’s rights or human rights — what’s so complicated about providing counselling, for example, or reaching out to NGOs that need training? It’s all about how we organise ourselves."
Abla El-Badry, head of Hope Village, further explained that, out of 22,500 NGOs in Egypt, only a few engage effectively with any social issues at all, and of those even fewer are interested in street children. In Imbaba, she said, where Hope Village receives and cares for 600 pregnant teens a year, the numbers of street children are palpably growing: "For a 13-year- old with a child, there are three options: leave the baby on the street, rent it out to beggars or sell it altogether." Those who keep the child are provided with help, but in any of the three cases the street child population is bound to increase. After El-Torbini, she has found, girls released from police custody show the signs of beatings and brutal treatment."
The media is another problem, as El-Badry went on to say, with reports
that summarily condemn NGOs. "But when people came and saw our efforts they realised we are doing a good job, even if it’s insufficient because of numbers — 6,500 children a year is very difficult." Sumaya El-Alfi, the NCCM street children project manager, says all relevant parties are now aware of the national strategy but that there are significant variations in the response of each: "coordination and monitoring will never be effective until we have the power to address delays caused by ministries." In fact the Ministry of Solidarity rejected the idea of a committee to represent all parties and undertake the required tasks — which was thought to undermine the ministry’s own authority. Still, the NCCM are lobbying to implement the strategy: "the role of the state is crucial to the success of such a strategy and without government bodies, no problem can be solved." Internal politics are delaying action but for some, like Zaki, solidarity is a prerequisite and, "we need to find out what impact that day has made." Yet the solidarity show that the day-long event amounted to excluded street children from any media appearances, ostensibly to avoid intimidating them. Still, to see them mingling with other children was a temporary and necessary relief: "if artists and entertainment figures are invited and such events take place at the receptions of shelters," Zaki elaborated, "the children will be so much happier."