Homeless children that roam the streets begging for food or alms or offering to do petty tasks are not peculiar to Cairo; they can be found in other major cities around the world, especially the underdeveloped world. Even though a portion of these children have nowhere to call home, many more take to the streets because of agonising family conditions that make the streets safer for the children than their own homes.
Societies struggle to find a solution to the problem of homeless children since, apart from the fact that they are more often than not victims, they end up getting involved in crime and drugs. The Egyptian society, too, is no exception.
President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi recently decided to allocate EGP100 million of the State budget to resolve the problem of homeless children, a move that was applauded by institutions concerned with children’s rights.
It is not clear, however, how the utmost benefit can be gained from this money, especially since there are no specific numbers of homeless children in Egypt. UNICEF, the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund, has placed their number at two million, whereas statistics by the Ministry of Social Solidarity refer to only 16,000.
“It is impossible to monitor the phenomenon as long as there are no official numbers of homeless children in Egypt,” the president of the Egyptian Central Agency for Public Mobilisation and Statistics (CAPMAS) once said.
In 2009, CAPMAS joined the National Council for Motherhood and Childhood in conducting a specific count in Cairo and some other governorates. But this proved next to impossible since the street children fled once they learnt that they were under official research. They felt frightened and unsafe, suspecting that if they answered questions they could be later traced and easily caught for any offence.
According to the figures of the Ministry of Social Affairs, today the Ministry of Social Solidarity, for the years 2008/2009, children in Egypt deprived of parental care and homes were estimated at 10,796. These were the numbers of those aged from seven to 18 and placed in homes provided by 390 societies or orphanages. There were a further 42,679 who had been in conflict with the law and who were then enrolled in 356 societies that acted in the stead of correctional facilities.
Despite the difficulty of obtaining accurate numbers, the latest statistics conducted by civil-rights organisations place the number of homeless children at some three million. “It is hard to determine their numbers because they are not resident in a specific place but move everywhere,” Doaa’ Abbas of the Enqizouni, literally Rescue me, campaign for rescuing homeless children says.
The Ministry of Social Solidarity said it would be using the EGP100 million allocated by the President to develop and upgrade 36 institutions that serve homeless children, and to provide counselling services. A further EGP48 million will be used for 25 civil societies to be equipped to offer direct services to street children.
No place to go
The dire conditions and numbers have led to the launch of many initiatives or projects that aim at caring for these children. The initiatives have come through societies or associations registered with the Ministry of Social Solidarity, or through international entities.
In cooperation with the NGO Bader (Initiate) for development and human rights, the legal society for family and children’s rights launched a campaign to establish an integral town for children who had no homes and no families. At the same time, the Emirates goodwill ambassador Mona al-Mansouri suggested that a complete town to rehabilitate homeless Egyptian children be established with the aim of changing the attitude of society. This proposal was applauded by the Ministry of Social Solidarity, Dar al-Iftaa’ al-Misriyyah—the foundation in charge of issuing fatwas (literally religious [Islamic] verdicts) in Egypt—and other civil societies. Enqizouni is also the name of a recent campaign launched by the civil movement that goes by the same name, with the aim of building a ‘city’ for homeless Egyptian children.
“The problem of homeless children lies in that they have no place to go,” Ms Abbas, who is also head of the legal association for family and children’s rights, says. “There are only 26 refuges in all of Egypt, and they only accept children under 15; those over that age are enrolled in correctional facilities. All of which means that we have no special association or government entity to care for these children. Non-governmental organisations that work with street children offer only day care. After 4:00pm the homeless are left to go back to streets.” Ms Abbas believes this effort is futile; it bears no fruit since it offers no control neither does it have any system.
“We launched our campaign, Enqizouni,” says Ms Abbas, “with the aim of establishing a full town to afford real assistance and support to children who have no homes. We hope to protect them from the precarious destiny that awaits them every night when they huddle to sleep under a bridge, on a street corner or on a sidewalk. They are victims merely by belonging to families that know nothing about responsibility.”
In this town, according to Ms Abass, the children would receive the services they need in all aspects of life: food, clothing, education, and culture. They would have a safe place to sleep, as well as entertainment and social and psychological rehabilitation to merge them back into society. There would be handicraft activity and technical education, which would pave the way before them to gain employment and homes in the future. “So as to build the town under the supervision of the Ministry of Social Solidarity, we have filed a request with the President, the Prime Minister, and the Minister of Social Solidarity,” Ms Abbas said. “But, unfortunately, our request was not approved. No convincing reason was given, although the request follows all the requisite laws and goes along with the Constitution which stipulates a role for the State in affording shelters for the children and protecting them from abuse or violence.”
Ms Abbas criticises the decision by the Ministry of Social Solidarity to use the State-allocated funds to upgrade existing societies which, in her opinion, have failed to care for street children.
After the Arab Spring uprising in 2011, several campaigns were launched in an effort to help street children when the demonstrators in Tahrir Square could see for themselves the growing numbers of homeless children in the square. “Once the demonstrations were called off, we tried to help these children to find suitable places,” Ms Abbas said. “But sadly, no place agreed to accept them and they went back to the streets.
“Even when we—as a civil movement—signed a protocol with the educational establishments affiliated to the Ministry of Social Solidarity, they only accepted six of the children. There is no place in Egypt that is qualified to look after homeless children, and all current associations are individual efforts. So, we decided to set up a national project with a complete village along the line of international ones. In Egypt, the SOS receives only foundling children, and others receive children under six years old. But they all care for the children until they are 18, after which they go back to the streets.
“This contributes directly to worsening the problem of homeless children” Ms Abbas says. “It led us to launch a campaign to collect signatures and convey the message to all concerned, whether individuals or associations, to put pressure on officials to approve our new project,” she added. “We would then approach the judiciary, which according to 2014 Constitution stipulates allocating a safe place for homeless children.”
As for criticisms that a town for the homeless would effectively isolate these children from the community, Ms Abbas says it is the only way to rehabilitate them on all levels and send them back to the community as healthy, productive individuals. They would have been provided with expert education and vocational training to help them find work.
Preferred location: the street
“Unfortunately,” says Azza Karim, Professor of Sociology and Researcher at the National Centre for Social and Criminological Research (NCSCR), “many initiatives are launched but none see light. Previous NCSCR manager Nagwa Khalil had once announced a plan to use a 40-feddan area in 6 October satellite town west of Cairo for the benefit of children in a way never before seen, yet it has not been implemented.
“After studying the reasons for the problem and the solutions, we found the main reason was that the educational methods of official and civil associations contradicted the optimal educational method for modifying the behaviour of the children, who are mainly looking for care and tenderness,” Dr Karim added. “These traditional methods lead the children to escape, since they were living freely when they lived in the street. So in these associations they feel like prisoners who are being penalised.
“In a study by the NCSCR of more than 1,000 homeless children, when asked which they preferred, ‘association, family, or street?’, the surprise answer was that 99 per cent preferred the street.
“Associations should have been preferred to the street because of a number of programmes that deal kindly with the children and meet the need for freedom they find in the street,” Dr Karim said.
She likes the idea of having a special village or town, but on certain conditions. “The most important is to provide them with an educational method that does not impose any repression of freedom, bearing in mind that they will need to be provided with birth certificates once they are enrolled in this town. At the same time, we should treat the reasons: family breakup, unusual relationships in a family, and poverty. This would in turn decrease the numbers of homeless children.”
Who are they?
“How would we define those children?” asks Ahmed Meseilhi, head of the children’s defence network at the Syndicate of Lawyers. “Are they those who do not have homes? Or are they fugitives from their families? Or orphans who do not have families?
“I prefer to define this category as the children who have not found any shelter except the street. According to a field-survey, we found that 70 per cent of them do not have birth certificates. They are accordingly leading lives that are officially illegal, which invariably means they are not acceptable in associations concerned with child care.
“The great problem is that these children keep on themselves having children, creating a new generation of homeless children.”
Even though they are victims, homeless children are constantly being chased by the police. This explains their aggressive response towards the police and other people, sometimes using stones and homemade weapons in defence. Following the 25 January Revolution some were hired by Muslim Brothers (MB) to carry out violent actions.
“Field surveys also indicate,” Dr Meseilhi says, “that 100 per cent of homeless children are on drugs, and 95 per cent have been raped by older street children or went into prostitution. Hence the need for a clear strategy for implementation that includes psychological and social rehabilitation of those children by experts, human rights and legal protection, medical care and education, as well as being merged into society through job opportunities.”
Establishing a village for such children, according to Dr Meseilhi, would only be a partial solution. “It would not treat the problem at the roots,” he says. “The initiative should instead be launched by the ministries concerned with child care to guarantee a far-reaching solution to the problem.”
29 July 2015