Telling the Stories of Street Children in Cairo

This post was written by guest contributor Yasmeen Nizamy.

The most basic rights: that’s what we will be talking about here. Forget about the flashy statements of the declarations of human rights, for the people I’m discussing are not recognized as humans to begin with. I’m talking about street children.

But, who are street children? They are known in Colombia as “the plague” or “dirty faces”. If you are Indian you’d be calling them “Sadak Chap,” while in Brazil the word for them is “Moleque”. Whatever name you give them, they share the same destiny. In a study based in Egypt, street children were defined as:

“children, boys or girls, who live in the street with minimal or mostly no contact with their parents or guardians, who depend entirely on the street for shelter without protection or guidance from any governmental or non-governmental associations, and who have developed and relatively adhere to certain skills and values that enable them to deal with street life.”

And why am I writing about street children? I’m Cairene. This implies daily encounters with street children at most of major street intersections, under bridges, or even wandering in the street of downtown Cairo, the neighborhood in which the infamous Tahrir Square is located. Downtown is not only about revolution and all the hubbly bubbly Arab Spring talks. When it comes to street children, downtown shows its ugliest face.

A picture drawn by one of the girls that Nelly Ali works with, and posted on Nelly’s blog.

For two decades now, officials in Egypt have always spoken about the problem of Street Children in the media; many conferences have been held to find solutions, many papers presented on the issue. And the result: children continue to live on the streets. One lady walked the extra mile and started to work on the ground away from the media; she is Nelly Ali. Nelly is an anthropologist and a PhD researcher on street children in Cairo, who at the same time volunteers as a project manager in one of the homeless shelters in Cairo. Her blog posts about street girls that she meets in the shelter attract the attention of Egyptian netizens to the issue and give an “on-the-ground” account to the inhumane situations they go through and the tough life they are forced to live. Her post “Street Children: The Hymen and the Stamp of Shame” spread virally over the internet in Egypt six months ago. In the post, Nelly did nothing other than narrating the details of the lives of some of the girls. In fact, this was not her first post on the topic; however, this one was the most shocking for the readers. It was the reality that shocked them, to know that these girls are forced –sometimes by their parents – into prostitution for survival, and to read about the plan that some girls – who were previously gang-raped in the streets – were conspiring against one of the homeless virgins to break her hymen and stamp her with the same shame stamp that they carry within their souls and bodies.

Such details were never communicated through the media before. We always depict street children as kids whose their parents cannot afford their living, hence they send them to the streets, or as the drugs addicts who rob for living. They are the smelly, ragged children that we ought to avoid when we see them in the streets. Nelly gives depth to this ugly picture and most importantly, adds the missing element in the previous attempts to address the issue, the human dimension.  In an attempt to feel how the society abuses them, listen with your hearts to the story of a Girl Trying to Sleep as narrated by one of the girls. As Nelly explains in this post, her research and writing are done following strict ethical principles, such as informed consent, the right to withdraw (or to indicate that certain stories shouldn’t be shared), and confidentiality.

Nelly showed in her post “Street Children: Kidnap, Rape and Stitches: Welcoming Laila to their Normality” a picture of a girl’s face full of carvings and scars, which is the stamp that the perpetrators use to scar the face of the victim just below the eye after the rape. One of the responses to this picture was from Dr. Hany, a cosmetic surgeon who offered his services to help the girls who had the rape scars. A later post was dedicated for Dr Hany who helped one of the girls to get rid of her scars:

“Taghreed turned around and asked me to bring my camera to the shelter tomorrow because now she was no longer ashamed to take pictures with her son.”

The momentum that her posts gave to the cause encouraged Nelly to take it to the next level. Instead of just narrating the street children’s stories to shed the light on their misery, she started campaigning for the serious problems and injustices that these girls face.  As she says, “we need to campaign for comprehensive, accessible, safe, scrutinized child protection.”

The situation of street children as mothers out of wedlock and living in the street are used as excuses for the state and the society to exclude street children and deprive them of their basic rights. Citizenship is a one these rights, or we may say dreams. Nelly tells us more on this dream in her post “Street Children and the Big Dream of Citizenship”:

“As she sits holding her cheerful 5 month old baby, she tells me her dream is to get ID for her and her child. That’s it – that is what she dreams of. But it’s a dream none of us who love and care about her have found easy to realise for her. Taghreed’s parents are not married; her father beats her every time she goes to try to convince him to go with her to get an ID issued and bureaucracy means she cannot get it done without him. […]

Taghreed is a young woman fighting for the right to exist in the state, the right to be recognised as a citizen”

In the end of this post, Nelly asks everyone to contact her if they can help in achieving Taghreed’s dream and issue her an ID. A few days later she tweets that they – with the assistance of volunteer lawyers – will start a lawsuit that will set precedents for future cases where street kids can get ID without the presence of their abusive parents.

Nelly is a brave woman who stopped lecturing and rolled up her sleeves to come up with a solution for this social problem in Cairo. However, she is not the brave one only here; her girls (as she likes to call the girls in the shelter) are even braver and more resilient. Watch her video talking about two of them.

This video is her contribution in the International Women’s Day for the event Take the Floor by UN Women. From the first moment in the video, you can instantly feel Nelly’s love and passion for what she believes: an honorable life for her street children. And that is what street children have not received from the larger society.

  • Izzie

    Thanks for sharing Yasmeen. Human dimension truly.


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