This little angel was so many times offered to me to take… I couldn’t because I thought she’d always be better off with her mother. I heard later that her mother tried to sell her for (£500).
So many guesses and statistics and much research, both academic and by well meaning NGO’s have pointed to different reasons for children being on the streets. There have been arguments back and forth whether it is the dire poverty of the children’s families that push them to the street or, whether, as some better placed researchers have found, the violence and family break down that lead them to migrate to a more violent and broken life on the streets.
What many have not suggested or noticed is that for some, all the reason they need to be on the street, is being a girl.
“Break a girl’s rib and she will grow twenty-four”. This is a common saying between the working class of Egypt. It is also a phrase we, those who work and serve street children, hear often when we attempt to mediate between these children and the parents they have escaped. A girl who is sleeping rough, will often have been born into a family where she has seen her own mother be the victim of violence from the male head of the household only to enter this circle as soon attention is directed at them.
Being a girl is a challenge – everywhere. But, it is more so when you are an Egyptian, poor, working class girl who comes from a violent family and lives with a stepparent. This isn’t a sweeping generalisation; it’s the demographic of most of the children I deal with. The girls sleeping under bridges, on street corners, by the railway tracks, those wide-eyed girls you see and often feel unsettled by, or often scare you, are the eyes of terrified, hungry, lonely children. It has become so easy for us to forget that. But they are children; crushed as that experience of childhood may be, they are children.
Street girls have often escaped households that have subjected them to incest or sexual abuse from their fathers, brothers and stepfathers. Of the ten girls currently at the shelter, one fourteen year old girl was sexually abused by her stepfather since she was nine years old, on discovering this, her mother took her to hospital for a virginity check after her husband denied the abuse. He paid the hospital staff to issue a fake report and in Cairo, subjected to another virginity test, a report was issued that she is no longer a virgin and with this report she has been submitted to the “young mothers” shelter. One-year-old Lamia is daughter to thirteen year old Samira who was raped by both her mother and father. Lamia has abandoned Samira at the shelter from fear of the responsibility and no one knows where she has turned to. Perhaps one of the most severe cases the NGO is currently dealing with is of Heidi, an incredibly beautiful fourteen-year old girl whose uncle had chained her for three months in the same position, raping her daily. He only let her go when she promised to join his prostitution ring; which he had his sister, her mother, working for. As soon as he undid the chains, she ran and threw herself out of the window. Passers by took the broken boned girl to the police station that then referred the girl to the shelter.
Sexual violence does not stop at home for the girls. Rape and violence towards girls is part of the street culture. Most of the girls at the shelter bare a curved scar on the side of their face or under their eye. There is a specific culture of rape on the streets of Cairo which none of those working with the children has been able to fully understand. Once a girl is raped for the first time, she is then deeply cut, usually by a pen knife or a piece of glass, in a curved manner, to mark that she is no longer a virgin, subsequent rapes are recorded on her face by smaller cuts across her face. This is the same if a boy has been raped. Administering first aid at the busy Sayeda Zainab day care reception center, the shelter manager records that this type of violence is the most common that they deal with, one that they record more than once a day. One girl seeking refuge at the shelter received sixteen stitches on her back as she tried to run away from her attackers, saving her face.
Perhaps there is nothing more telling of the violence the street girls have suffered than to watch them jump out of bed into the corner of their rooms crouching over their babies when the door is opened by one of the social workers. This and the flinching of the children at any quick or sudden movement is very difficult to deal with, even for the social workers who know the girl’s stories and who have seen this repeated every time. It is the NGO’s aim to help these children sleep with both eyes shut.