CAIRO - Dina and Salma were eight and six years old when they were kicked out of their home because there was no money to pay the rent.
“Our mom used to make money by bringing men home, and then, when they left, she would just hit us with sticks and branches,” Dina told The Media Line. “Then, one day she never came back. We don’t know what happened to her.”
Dina, now 13, and Salma, 11, are two of Egypt’s street children, whose numbers are estimated anywhere between 90,000 and 1 million.
The Egyptian government admits that the number of street children is on the rise, and in 2003 adopted a new national strategy for the protection and rehabilitation of street children, which tasked the National Council for Childhood and Motherhood (NCCM) with coordinating the efforts of NGOs and relevant governmental organizations.
The NCCM led the drafting of key amendments to Egypt’s Child Law to alter the recognition of street children as victims and at-risk rather than being viewed, as is the common perception at the moment, as deviants or criminals. But the national strategy has yet to become operational in the form of an action plan.
Egyptian Minister of State for Family and Population Moshira Khattab said last month that the number of births in Egypt was increasing, and attributed the phenomenon to illegal marriages, involving underage girls, which in turn fueled the existence of street children and child labor, adding to a national population growing by 1.5 million every year. The minister said fighting school dropouts was one of the most effective ways to eliminate street children and other problems such as underage marriage.
But some argue that the government is barking up the wrong tree and needs to address the core problem - poverty.
“If we look at the increasing number of street children in Egypt, it doesn’t work,” Manal Tibe, director of the Egyptian Center for Housing Rights told The Media Line. “[The government] strategy is working on the current street children who already exist on the street but it doesn’t prevent the potential possibility of other street children. We don’t prevent or eliminate the roots of this phenomenon like eliminating poverty or correcting the education system in Egypt.”
“If you don’t eliminate poverty, you will always have street children,” she said. “No number of governmental agencies and NGOs will be able to look out for this number of children.”
“Early marriage is not the problem either,” Manal argued. “Poverty is the problem. We don’t have early marriage in Egypt because the age has risen. Many don’t marry until their 30s because of the economic circumstances.”
“If you talk about one million street children in Egypt, who will marry and have children, they will send them to the streets with completely different norms and values to the society,” Tibe explained. “It will cause a conflict in society itself, because the rehabilitation institution does not develop alternatives for these children to become respected people in the community. There is no way but crime.”
Egypt’s Child Law was amended in 2008 to protect children from being stigmatized as criminals by holding parents legally responsible for their children’s behavior. While it may seem like an obvious move, Save the Children in Egypt said that in the past, thousands of such children were arrested, by virtue of being on the street alone, and were sent to detention centers without appropriate protection.
But while new measures are slowly being introduced, understanding how to tackle the problem remains a tricky and complex issue.
“Causes are multiple and interrelated,” Abdel-Rahman Ghandour a UNICEF spokesman for the MENA region told The Media Line. “They include poverty, rural migration, bad housing, school dropout, violence against children and others. Children living in the street are affected by a combination of mutually reinforcing protection risks such as child labor, trafficking, conflict with the law and abuse.”
A government survey in 2009 suggested that 42 percent of street children in Egypt are school dropouts, and 30 percent had never attended school at all. Many are ignorant about health, hygiene, and nutrition and deprived of services. As children living on the fringe subsist on an inadequate diet, they are often malnourished and most of them are illiterate.
“The phenomenon is, by its nature, extremely difficult to measure,” he explained, “as classical information gathering exercises such as households surveys, are not designed to capture their situation. Moreover, being in the street is a status offence for children in several countries in the region.”
According to UNICEF, a street child is “any child that lives, works, and sleeps in the streets.” Some of them, after begging or vending on the streets, will return home at the end of the day and contribute their earnings to the family income. But others will live and work on the street and are destitute without help from their families.
When Dina and Salma were first evicted from their house, they initially planned to beg and earn a few pounds daily, enough for a meal and a couple of sandwiches a day. They moved to downtown Cairo when they were 11 and 8, but after seeing other street children raped and beaten they moved to a different area.
“We had a few hundred pounds we had saved, but didn’t know what to do to make money,” they said. “Then a nice man told us that we could buy bread from the government and sell it to people at a higher price. So that’s what we did.”
They set up shop in Zamalek and made what they called a home for themselves along the banks of the Nile. They had a tarp that was buttressed by two logs and even had a little pit for a fire to boil water and cook small foodstuffs.
“We were alright, but then the police came and found us and started to
demand we pay them,” Dina said pointing to the other side of the river
where they stayed. “We had about LE 3,000 saved up, but had to give
them 500 or they would have hurt us. This is when we decided to leave.”
Today, Dina and Salma have a garden to call home. It is a rundown,
abandoned houseboat, and they have a little shelter with wooden walls
taken from the house.
Nobody bothers them, they say.
“Sometimes I hear people shout at us to take a shower, but we haven’t
been in a bathroom since we were with our mom. It is okay, we have the
river,” Salma says pointing to the murky water filled with floating
“Here, we have been able to save up a lot of money because there are
more people buying our bread,” Dina says. “I hope that when I turn 16 I
can get us a small flat somewhere cheap and Salma can go to school
while I get a job.”