By Frida Alim
In 2011, street children found a home in Tahrir Square and were among the first on the front lines of violent clashes with the police. For many, the revolution was retribution for years of abuse at the hands of police and for the lack of governmental intervention to protect their rights and supply them with their basic needs.
During the key 18 days of the Egyptian revolution, these children turned out to demonstrations across Egypt to protest for the rights of all Egyptians, yet they have likely been hit the hardest by the economic downturn and political events of 2011 and 2012. For many, the revolution was the first time they sensed a belonging to the greater Egyptian community. Yet, in the revolution’s aftermath, the increase in the street child population is being followed by an increasing intolerance towards their presence.
Media campaigns during the revolution and transitional phase, which portrayed them as thugs responsible for violence at protests, have had an indisputable effect on the public attitude toward street children. Many community members harbor the misconception that street children are criminals and have voluntarily turned to the streets as a suitable environment for their illegal activities. The reality is that many of these children come from abusive families and the street is their escape. Overwhelmingly, these children are not criminals, they are victims who are sexually abused, beaten and mugged.
Increased hostility from the community is only one problem these children have faced in post-revolutionary Egypt; several factors have contributed to a worsening of their socio-economic status in society. Statistics show that 1 in 4 individuals arrested after violent protests in December 2011 was a child. Although Egyptian child law states that children are to be detained separately from adults, they have been detained for long periods (with adults), subject to torture, and tried in military courts, with no access to lawyers or their families. The institutions that were meant to protect children have been shut down, have failed, or are abusing their authority. The dissolution of the National Council for Childhood and Motherhood (NCCM) after the revolution has left many child protection agencies in limbo. District Child Protection Committees, which were created through the NCCM’s amendments to the Child Law in 2008, are either weak or nonexistent. These committees were created to ensure the protection of children and link them to much needed services. A vast majority of NGOs working with street children are completely unaware of the role or existence of these committees. Many NGOs that do work with street children insist on reintegration of children into their families. This approach often disregards the primary reason that vulnerable children take to the streets—severe physical and emotional abuse from their families. Recent attempts by government officials to the street child “problem” have emphasized creating housing centers in remote areas, which would isolate children from the community rather than reintegrate them.
As a majority of street children are undocumented, they face severe restrictions on their access to services and rights such as health care and education. Many hospitals are unwilling to treat undocumented children, and fewer doctors are willing to report cases of child abuse to the authorities when they receive a beaten street child. Doctors tend to regard their responsibilities as fore most medically related, and reporting an abused child would mean entering the bureaucratic and ineffective world of the police institution. Schools, on a case-by-case basis, accept or reject street children and lack strategies to enroll or re-enroll them. Many children who do enroll are subject to corporal punishment or are unable to pay school fees and subsequently drop out.
Although the government’s national estimate of street children places their number at 50,000, non-governmental organizations have estimated between 250,000 to 2 million street children throughout Egypt. Anyone who has walked through the streets of Cairo can testify that the government estimate is a deceptively low and unrealistic number. It points to a theme in child rights in Egypt: an oppressive system developed by an older generation with the purpose of silencing and crippling a new generation. The government’s response to street children, which has emphasized forced removal from the streets, has reflected an “out of sight, out of mind” attitude that seeks to eliminate the symptoms of the street child phenomenon rather than its cause. While NGOs do extremely valuable work, they cannot continue to fill the gaping hole of missing services that the Egyptian government owes its children. A comprehensive approach to preventing and mitigating the street child phenomenon should be instated as a top priority for the new Egyptian administration as it faces the opportunity to work with Egyptian society’s most resilient and disadvantaged youth group.
Frida Alim is a UCLA Alumna and former Burkle Center intern. She currently works as a researcher in Cairo, Egypt.
Statistical figures were drawn from local Egyptian NGO reports, UNODC report on street children, and the National Public Radio.