Don’t walk between the bark and the tree.
“We won’t hide the girls away, they have nothing to be ashamed of and they have rights.”
Who: Hope Village Society’s home for young mothers.
What: Offers support and education to street children who have become pregnant.
“Street children were regarded as criminals, and no-one was interested in why they had left home. No-one wanted to listen to the story of how a girl on the street had been raped while a knife was held at her throat. They didn’t want to know that such tragedies exist in our country.”
After 22 years of working with street children, Abla El Badry has also learned to be realistic. They cannot save everyone. The children do not always want to leave the street. They usually go back.
“There are no easy answers,” she says. “It takes a very long time before a street child trusts us, and we can’t force them. We can only love them.”
She is a doctor of sociology, and the manager of Hope Village Society (HVS), which was founded at the end of the 1980s by an Englishman, Richard Hemsley, and grew to consist of several day centres, shelters, and mobile teams with social workers and doctors. The organisation also runs a home for young mothers in Moquttum, a district in Cairo.
It is a large, pleasant house, with lots of rooms and narrow stairs. On the ground floor, a group of women are baking and laughing together, and in another room four girls are getting ready for an aerobics class. Upstairs, a room containing several sofas is filled with noisy fun, as teenage girls chase small boys and small girls around; small boys and girls who are not their brothers and sisters. The girls are mothers. Children who have had children.
The girls are mothers. Children who have had children.
Some of the girls are pregnant. Nahed is a little older, 21. Her baby is due in four months, and she says that “God willing”, the man who is the father will come and ask her to marry him.
She tells us her story:
“Everything changed at home after I lost my virginity. I was 15, and they said I had caused a scandal by having a boyfriend, that I had brought shame on the family. They said I had mental health problems.
“I took the train to Cairo where I met some other girls, there was a group of five or six of us, and we sold handkerchiefs. Or begged. The police used to pick us up, but they beat us and did bad things. They blackmailed us; either we had sex with them or they arrested us for some crime they’d made up.
“I’m going to have my baby in four months. Things are good with my family again. But I don’t like them! It wasn’t fair of them to say I was sick and send me away to have electric shock treatment. I’ve told them that I think they treated me badly. But what can my family say to make it up to me? There are some things you can’t put right with words, can’t forgive.
There are some things you can’t put right with words, can’t forgive.
“I’ve been through so much that was unfair. I spent a year in prison for “tempting” men, but a man who buys sex isn’t doing anything illegal. I was accused of dressing inappropriately! The way I looked is ok for the upper classes but when you live on the streets it’s a crime. I feel a lot of hate for the way I’ve been treated, but here they treat me like a human being.”
The fact that there are children living on the streets is the ultimate consequence of violence in the home, explains Abla. But even the violence on the streets becomes a natural way of life for the children and teenagers. A life they are reluctant to leave.
“The children get used to the violence, and don’t want to be without it. That’s a fact which has shocked us many times. And children love freedom. They love being out on an adventure. But even if they’re on the streets 14 hours every day, it’s good that they are at least with us for 10 hours. That’s the way we look at it.”
The children get used to the violence, and don’t want to be without it. That’s a fact which has shocked us many times.
With time, she has learned what makes the girls on the streets different from the boys. The reason girls start living on the streets is often that they have been the victims of sexual violence, or forced into an arranged marriage when they are no more than 13 or 14. A girl who has suffered sexual abuse never goes home. She would rather be abused on the streets. She knows that if she goes home her family will immediately take her to a doctor to see if she is still a virgin. And no girl on the streets is that.
There are fewer girls than boys living on the streets, but the number of groups of girls is rising.
“The girls are more aggressive than the boys, they’ve built up a very strong defence. They are more sensitive, and they develop a strong intuitive sense of who is good and who is bad.”
Abla says that the street children have a hard life, but that it is not all bad. The street is its own, extremely well-organised community. It provides the structure which the children did not have at home. The groups are small, usually about ten children, led by the child who has lived on the streets the longest. Some of the groups are single-sex, others consist of both boys and girls, and it is not uncommon for a girl to be the leader.
No-one knows how many street children there are in Egypt. Officially there are around 10,000 in Cairo and Alexandria. But Abla’s guess is 200,000.
Officially there are around 10,000 street children in Cairo and Alexandria. But Abla’s guess is 200,000.
“They’re all bright and funny, true survivors, and they have the ability to put up with difficulties ….and to enjoy life. Above all, they have created family ties. They do everything for one another. They’ve even been known to kill for each other!”
Abla and her co-workers worry about the rise in violence on the streets that they can see. Twenty years ago violence was relatively rare, and mainly a means of obtaining food.
“Now the level of violence is exploding, and we see that they are using acid and knives to rob, steal and fight other gangs. We ought to be examining the reasons. What part does the media play, all the violent films they watch?”
That a girl in a group of street children becomes pregnant is the rule rather than the exception. The home for young mothers offers her not only protection, therapy and medical care but also classes in motherhood and the chance to learn a trade. She is encouraged to tell her story in pictures and words, and to express her emotions.
She has to learn that she is a person with thoughts and feelings – and a history.
“We want to change her perception of herself as just a street child. She has to learn that she is a person with thoughts and feelings – and a history. If she doesn’t change inside, she will go back to the streets, there’s no question about it.”
No case is ever considered ’closed’. Some of the girls go back to their families, but come back, after a week or a year. Others get married.
It was not until 2008 that a girl could get a birth certificate for her baby without being married. That is a step in the right direction; in the past, newborn babies were taken to a children’s home where they stayed, unless foster parents were found. The girls were never recognised as mothers. At the home for young mothers they can have a home for themselves and their child, for as long as they wish.
“We won’t hide the girls away,” says Abla. “They have nothing to be ashamed of and they have rights. They are true survivors who deserve our respect.”
Maternal deaths: 43 deaths per l00,000 births.
Number of children/woman: 2.97 (estimate for 2011)
Abortion legislation: Abortion is not legal. It is only allowed if the mother’s life is at risk. Very restrictive application.
Law against rape within marriage: No
Violence against women in close relationships: Two women are raped every hour. Only 12 per cent of 2,500 incidents of sexual harassment were reported to the police.