08 February 2006
Among the swirling crowds of Cairo, one hardly notices the small figures of children who call the streets their home. Adel is one of them. He left home at nine to escape a life of misery and violence.
"My father would beat me every day after he returned from work, even though I was doing everything around the house,” says Adel. “He always came home in a bad mood and would hit me with anything that came to hand. In the end, I couldn’t take it anymore.”
But the life he found on the streets was no better, Adel admits. Now after four years of a rootless, vulnerable existence, he longs to return home. “When I see other children on their way to school, I wish I could be like them. Here on the streets, I have no future,” Adel adds with a helpless shrug.
Adel’s story is typical of the estimated 1 million Egyptian children who spend most of their lives on the streets. But according to UNICEF Child Protection Officer Nadra Zaki, their plight has done little to stir the sympathy of ordinary Egyptians.
“Many people tend to see street children as little more than petty criminals, who fully deserve the harsh treatment that they get from the police and other authorities,” says Zaki.
“On the positive side, there is nowadays a clear awareness about the phenomenon of street children, about its causes and its characteristics. Now we need to think about the solutions, solutions that will give street boys and girls the protection they so badly need. And also solutions that will save them from resorting to the street in the first place. “
One encouraging sign of change is the work being done by NGOs like Hope Village Society, one of UNICEF’s key partners. At the Society’s centre in the working-class Cairo suburb of Rod El Farag, Adel is among a group of street children given the task of supporting other street children even more vulnerable than themselves. These "mentors" are taught the basics of first aid using a simple kit containing bandages, iodine and other essentials.
After dark the streets of downtown Cairo can be very dangerous, making street children more vulnerable to violence and abuse. It is at this time that Adel and the other street mentors may be called on to put their first-aid skills to use.
Adel keeps the first-aid kit with him at all times, ready for use whenever a fellow street child falls victim to an assault or suffers an injury. Although the kit is basic, it can be used to treat most minor wounds and prevent serious infection, at least until proper medical attention is administered at the centre the next day.
Hope Village Society has been working with street children for the past fifteen years, and with UNICEF since 2003. The collaboration produced the Street Children Health Risks Project, a preventive education program designed to help children living on the streets of Cairo, Alexandria and Qena deal with the daily risks they face.
Hope Village coordinator Ashraf Abdel Moneim sees a bigger objective. “The approach we're trying is one that reaches out to street children and explores their potential,” she says. “In that way we hope we can find leaders who are able to help others.”
Changing the prevailing stereotypes about street children is also crucial. A clear sign that official attitudes are changing came in 2003 when a new National Strategy for the Protection, Rehabilitation and Reuniting of Street Children was unveiled by Egypt’s First Lady Suzanne Mubarak. This strategy gave the National Council for Childhood and Motherhood (NCCM) – Egypt’s main governmental agency dealing with child issues – a central role, coordinating the efforts of NGOs and relevant governmental organisations.
“The real significance of the strategy is that it adopts a rights-based approach,” says NCCM Secretary-General Moushira Khattab. “These children are not criminals but victims who have been deprived of their rights – the right to education, health and social care, and especially the right to family care. The strategy is based on changing the way in which society views these children.”
The strategy sets a number of objectives, among them, building an accurate database of children living in the streets and training social workers and others dealing with them. Another aim is to promote ways of drawing children away from the street and back to their homes, the most challenging task of all. Finally, the strategy looks to boost the role of NGOs, given their vital work bringing assistance to the children themselves.
The emerging partnership between government, NGOs and international agencies like UNICEF has encouraged hopes of an improvement in the situation of children like Adel.