Child Street Mothers – Being the Best Mothers They Can Be.

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“She works at a sugar factory 28 days a month and she comes to the shelter to stay over 2 days a month. On her way here, she spends every penny she has earned buying food, toys and clothes for Noor.” Shaymaa was telling me about 14 year old Basma because she was due to the shelter today to spend those precious two days with 14 month old Noor. Basma suffered from schizophrenia, fell pregnant in Upper Egypt, and was abandoned by the boy who repeatedly raped her once she was with child. At 12 years old she tried to convince her parents to accept her new born, and had called Shaymaa three days after taking the baby to her home, telling her to come save the little child who had been locked in the chicken den by her grandfather in an attempt to ‘hide the shame’ that would come to the family if their neighbours came to know of her. Shaymaa had made the nine-hour journey to save Noor from the neglect that she so bravely endured and which Basma has so bravely took action against.

That day at the shelter, Noor was in her element and would not leave her shy mother’s lap. Basma had a way of saying Noor’s name; which elongates the vowels in a melodic tone that only those from upper Egyptians know how to utter and Noor recognised the difference in how her name was said by her mother in contrast to all of us and would always smile after its utterance and quickly drop her head on Basma’s shoulder or bosom. Basma would start feeding Noor from the moment she entered the shelter, till the moment she left, very obviously trying to make up for the nurturing she believed Noor would find in the food and that which she feels she has deprived her of during her absence.

In the group therapy session, the girls were talking about being mothers and what their children meant to them. Some shared their fears of responsibility and of having to let go of certain hopes of a changed future because now they had a child that tied them to their past. Others said it was the only beautiful thing that happened to them and that it was a chance to give someone a certain type of love that they had been denied. Basma said, “I was just really happy with Noor was born, I was so worried that something was going to be wrong with her, the doctors were worried something would be wrong, but look at her, she’s perfect.”

This day was like any other day for the shelter and the ups and the downs. Maya who had been kept in an imaginary circle for 3 years by her step mother till she was 6-years-old in which she had to sleep, play, excrete, wee and eat, and who had been violent towards not only Summer, but the other under fives came and confided in me telling me that she was violent towards Summer because she wants her to grow up into a tough woman and not to be afraid. She told me that life is violent, full of bad people who hurt weak people, that there were only those two categories, that she didn’t want Summer to be part of the latter group and end up being hurt like she was before she became strong. It was the first time Maya had opened up to me about strength and weakness and what she thought of them. It’s always hard as a researcher not to share what I thought, or advise, but I was a human before I was a researcher and Maya was talking to “that” me. I explored with Maya the other ways Summer could grow with the violence, that it may leave her physically disabled, that she may become scared of loud sounds, just gentle reminders to Maya that she was not in control of how her intentions could pan out. Maya got up saying, “I hadn’t thought about that, I need to think about that because I don’t want bad things for Summer”.

Taghreed, the 16-year-old who would wet herself every time her father walked into the shelter to find her there since she was 8, who I am ashamed to have judged on the first meeting as cold and quite scary, would stop eating when 12-month-old Rana, whom she had socially adopted at the shelter would be taken away for family visits. Taghreed travelled a brave journey to remove a rape scar from her face, counting the stitches as the surgeon was taking them out, tears welling up in the corner of her eyes, fighting the pain. She had asked for a cream to hide it before I managed to organize this reconstruction for, but she had always refused to tell me why it was so important to her. On our journey back after the last visit to the doctor, she told me I could bring my camera in tomorrow because she was now ready to have a picture with her 6-month-old son.

Little snippets of a tender motherhood can be recorded in every on of my visits to the shelter, from laughter of the children in their child mother’s arms, to the horrific moments when you enter a child’s bedroom at night and within seconds she grabs her baby and cowers of her/him in a corner for safety. Children who become mothers before they have grown are children who try the best they can with what they have. This is why I tore up my university business card and replaced it with my own that reads: I go to university to teach and I go to my street children to learn.

Happy Mothers Day to all the child street mothers, all over the world.

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“Break a Girl’s Rib and She’ll Grow 24”: Egypt and Children’s Rights in the New Constitution

Flickr: أحمد عبد الفتاح Ahmed Abd El-fatah

I wrote this post originally for Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy and can be found here: http://timep.org/commentary/break-a-girls-rib-and-shell-grow-24-egypt-and-childrens-rights

Whether it is in the face of personal or structural violence enacted in the forms of physical, sexual, emotional, cultural, verbal, or financial abuse or neglect, children in Egypt face a rocky road. Many children do not have clear access to their rights and encounter limited recourse in pursuing them. The dreams of political and social improvement that the January 25 uprising embedded in those who care about the plight of children in Egypt were met with infinite amounts of disappointment. In actuality, the situation for the most vulnerable continued to get worse, and lawyers and activists found themselves occupied with fighting for—and trying simply to maintain—the very basic rights of children. Rather than engaging in the lobbying and other efforts needed to enhance and improve children’s rights, these advocates have struggled merely to hold on to the status quo.

One of the first phrases I became familiar with during my work with street children in Cairo was: “break a girl’s rib and she will grow 24.” This was a colloquial saying I often heard during my mediations with parents of street children whom we were trying to reintegrate into society by supporting reunions with their families. The idea that violence towards children is not only acceptable but actually good for them is encountered—and fought—at the grassroots level, where laws protecting children against domestic abuse are not actively implemented.

The saying above illustrates a gap between legal protections and their social contexts, and it is a prime example of the different layers of obstacles that a children’s rights lawyer or activist must combat when tackling any rights abuses that children encounter. Of course, an added difficulty is that children cannot actively engage in the fight for their own rights. Members of the working classes, ethnic and religious minorities, and women have all led struggles for their own rights, but children simply cannot effectively organize in support of their rights. Consequently, children’s rights are often only codified as long as they never conflict with those claimed by adults. Each time a new constitution has been drafted in Egypt’s recent history, it seems as though human rights defenders have been disappointed in general, and the most recent constitution is no different. Specifically, those who have dedicated themselves to protecting children have a few grave concerns with the new document.

In 2011, Amira Qotb and others registered Manadeel Waraq (“Paper Tissue”) as a nationwide popular campaign for the protection of children’s rights in Egypt.  The group’s main responsibility is to lobby for the implementation of international and local laws protecting children in Egypt. However, even as I and other members of Manadeel Waraq were being asked our opinions regarding what would become the 2014 Constitution—which appears to grant basic human rights to children (despite lacking information on their implementation)—we were petitioning against the arrests of children, their detention with adults, and the public distribution of their pictures by the police and press. The distance between the words and actions we continue to encounter speaks volumes on the actual value of the proposed changes when not accompanied by detailed implementation schemes.

Among the articles that concern children are articles 97 and 204, respectively regarding arrests and military trials. Article 97 states that civilians should be brought before their “natural judge”, who for children would be a judge in a juvenile court. This is already somewhat problematic, as the juvenile justice system in Egypt is not a place where fair legal procedures regarding arrest, trial, and detention are observed. As for Article 204, it states that civilians can be tried before a military court under certain circumstances. It appears that this article will lead to a continuation of past treatment for children, as they have stood before military courts for years now. Manadeel Waraq and the No Military Trials for Civilians campaign are engaged in the fight against making children stand before a military court, though with limited real success.

On a slightly more promising note, Article 52 is a positive addition to the constitution in that it criminalizes violence in all forms, regardless of the victim’s position on pressing charges. However, it remains unclear whether this includes cases of abuse that occur within the family or whether such violence is still considered a domestic matter. As it stands, only a member of a child’s family can file a complaint based on physical violence towards a child if the violence involved is neither sexual nor life threatening. Another positive note is found in Article 60, which criminalizes any act that mutilates a human’s body. This article can be seen as laying the foundation for a fight against female genital mutilation, a practice that has affected the vast majority of female Egyptians. However, it is not clear how this article could be specifically invoked in practice. Finally, Article 53 references anti-discrimination principles that should guide the country in general; I and others hope that the guarantees made will be applied to schools that currently refuse to enroll street children with “mainstream” children because of the former’s history and experiences. Of course, the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which has been ratified by Egypt, requires such non-discrimination in its second article.

The 2014 Constitution’s Article 80, which focuses particularly on children’s rights, was welcomed by the Egyptian Coalition for the Rights of the Child in Egypt. This article reiterated the state’s responsibility for protecting children from violence and preventing sexual and economic exploitation, including limits on vocational work that puts children in any danger. It remains to be seen how this article will be implemented, though, taking into account the complex economic circumstances that have led to a widespread level of child labor as a source of familial economic support. The article also states a right to identification papers for children—this is a very welcome move from the view of NGOs. Many NGOs working with street children have had their hands tied in attempts to enroll children in school or to get them necessary medical attention because of a lack of proper identification. Such situations present a catch-22: street children often ran away from their parents because of abuse or exploitation, yet previously they could only obtain official papers in the presence of their parents. Finally, Article 80 promises a comprehensive juvenile justice system, including legal aid for children and detention areas separate from adults. Again, we can only hope this will be a priority in the midst of the instability that the country is experiencing.

Article 89, which criminalizes human trafficking in all its forms, is another welcome addition. Though laws that already exist have done little to eradicate trafficking, the placement of a prohibition on the activity in the constitution is a necessary step to battle the violent abuse of young, female domestic workers. Many such workers are effectively “sold” by their families, as they are placed in other’s homes to work and their salaries are paid to their parents. Another area of work that may result from these laws is an investigation of the prevalence and details surrounding the stealing of organs from street children. It also includes criminalizing the prostituting of children whether covertly or in the form of a “child marriage” that lasts a few days. An example of an organized child-marriage-brokering network was portrayed in a secret documentary film done by journalist and former parliamentary candidate Gameela Ismail.

The writing of a constitution that includes explicit acknowledgments of children’s rights is the first step on a long journey to ensuring the safety that children deserve and to providing them with the opportunity to grow and develop into adults who are ready to face the challenges of life. One hopes to see improved methods of implementation and monitoring of these rights. There is also a need for broader recognition of the importance of academic, impartial research that investigates the roots of the social problems that harm children and how those problems can be solved at the earliest stages. Such a need exists because, in the words of Frederick Douglass, “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.”

A Letter to Alaa in Prison, Where he is Free

 

Dear Alaa,

“To believe in something, and not to live it, is dishonest.” Gandhi. And so I will start my letter again,

My dear, honest friend, Alaa

I am writing this letter to thank you and to apologise to you.

I attended a workshop in Bristol last year. One of the professors speaking referred to you as a “problem” for new regimes that came into power in Egypt. They used you as an example of a “new type of youth”, one the repressive governments could not buy nor silence with power or promises of personal gain. I felt so proud at that moment. You were never one that trod on blood that was not given time to dry. You lived the expression of your understanding and conviction that innocent blood would not dry except with accountability, quick justice and with plans on how more blood would not be shed in the name of any flag or any religious book. It is with pride that you should know that this stand you take is not unnoticed, that it resonates in many consciousness’s as a reference point and that you have constructed in your own fight, a truth about what freedom and justice should be by taking this position. Rare are the opportunities to meet someone who is that brave, I do not take that for granted.

I am holding on to the image of you walking around in large groups during Tweet Nadwa giving the microphone to those who had gathered for a chance to have their dreams aired and heard and respected. You handed them in that microphone a tool of expression; literally and practically giving a voice to those who are often ridiculed for what others may call utopian dreams or naïve solutions to life’s complex problems. I hold that image of you because only when I saw how scared of you they were did I realise the power of what you were doing was. The value of that walking around in public spaces celebrating the agency and potential of your equals was a threat to the fragility of those who rule by terror and manipulation. It only made sense that they would try and find any way they could to put you in their cages, believing – foolishly – that those metal bars could keep in the value, the importance, the power, the affect of what you were trying to do. They thought, foolishly that they could imprison the ideas in your head that spread to us like dandelion heads every time they so much as walked past you or your cell.

Often, those who support my work, will attack me if I show discontent at a violation of the rights of someone with whom they, or indeed I, do not sympathise, as if rights were or should be reserved only for those with whom we associate. This often demoralized me and made me feel I was lucky to have an option not to be in Egypt, that I had the option to call another land “home”. But the idea that you represented, the philosophy that’s embodied in what you fight for, is part of what bought me back. The possibility of “fair”, or a collaborative “I”, that had to come together, gave me hope. I needed that the determination to work with the most vulnerable at home, my street kids. The justice and equal opportunity that I felt would come if everyone really heard, really understood, really lived what you were saying, was worth returning for. You made me feel that people at “home” understood the underlying values of equality, access to opportunity, freedom, dignity, integrity, they were free and so were asking for their freedom. It is people like you who gave people like me, with something to offer, no matter how big or small, the chance of coming back and offering it despite it not being profitable, not being progressive in a capitalist way.

I am incredibly humbled by your strength, by your determination and by the honour with which you live to remain true too your fundamental principles. I see how you are never compromising, never meeting an oppressor half way, never being silenced in the guise of neutrality. I admire that you are always taking sides – always – with the oppressed; no matter who that was because it was – always – the principle, not the idea, not the person, not the situation, that mattered to you. The abstract notions of justice and integrity that many construct in ways that suit them, were clearly well grounded and defined as far as you were concerned and I write now to reassure you that all those lessons are in my and many other hearts and continue to inspire us and give us hope. Hope is not a gift that is to be taken for granted in the world in which we live. It is the idea that is embodied in all those things that you do; which bought me back to my “home” country, it’s principles and potential like yours that kept me going was I worked with the street children.

Your family are incredibly lucky that they have you to support the remarkable work they have done, both in and out of prison. I was not surprised when I first found out that Ahdaf Sueif was your auntie. She had been my role model since I first picked up her book in 1992. I was only 12 at the time, and her message of merging the public and private, making the private political, has stayed with me 20 years on. I wanted to grow up and be like her. Then, one day, in a march for Michael Nabil, a lost cause in Egypt at the time, I found myself walking next to her, chanting for the freedom of someone whose ideology we both were not only unsympathetic towards, but fundamentally opposed to; both of us taking sides against the oppressor despite having nothing in common with the victim. I cannot begin to describe my euphoria in that moment. Mona and Sana are also incredible in what they do and when anyone compares my passion for street children with Mona’s work for her civilians tried in military courts, I am humbled beyond words. Your parents must be so proud of you all. It is true in your case that the apple has not fallen far from the tree.

Thank you for fighting the battle long before people had an avenue to express their opinions. Years before the squares and streets welcomed this generations protests you were out there fighting for freedom and getting punished for it. Thank you for the times you grew up without the presence of your own father because he was doing the same thing. Thank you for not being silenced, for being more than you had to be and making it like that was the only way to be. Thank you for not giving up and reminding me that abandoning the cause was an option, but one we did not have to take and one; which you refused even though you had so much to lose. Thank you for being and living the thing that you believed in.

And as I have said right at the beginning of this letter, I am also writing to apologise. I apologise, not only for not being in that cell with you since I share almost all of the ideas that you are in there for. I do not just apologise because you are missing out on so many “first times” your only son is performing without you cheering him on. I do not only apologise for every morning you are not waking up with Manal in your arms. But I am apologising because so many cathartic moments I have lived, have come as a result of all that has made you physically behind bars. My only consolation is that you are truly free, freer than the wildest birds could ever hope to be. And those things you say break inside you every time you are in prison, they are nothing more than the shell that reveals the next layer, the shiner, more refined spirit that brings about hope as soon as it is let go.

I watched a video of you saying that your greatest fear is to grow old one day and look back and see that the results of what you have done would bring sorrow and not joy. Fear not ya Alaa, because that will never be. What is happening now should not dishearten you, or me or anyone else. The truth is, the closer we get to justice, the clearer and purer the concept of justice is, and because of that, our struggle for it increases and the harder our fight becomes.

I am humbly your inspired, grateful and hopeful friend,

Nelly

Laura, 11 years old writes her 6th grade project on street children, inspired by this blog.. Thank You!

A beautiful 11 year old girl by the name of Laura was inspired by my blog to write her 6th grade project on street children.. Thank you Laura for having a heart that cares, that seeks to understand the pain of others and from such an early age being engaged in their worlds… your love has honoured and humbled me… your direct, simple and sincere message of hope and change are real and the world would be a better place if we could all remember how easy and simple it is to help..

I am proud to share your little project on my blog…

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مصر: الاعتداء الجنسي على الاطفال : وتغيير فى المناهج

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(Extremely grateful to the lovely Mohamed Ateya for translating this post – thank you!)

و ارتفع ذراعها الصغير فى الهواء و هتفت بشجاعة و حماس : “لقد فعلها والدى!!” سلمى _طفلة صغيرة تبلغ من العمر أربع سنوات_ قالتها و لم تكن تعلم حجم الصدمة و الالم التى خلفتها كلماتها بالمتدربين ربما لسنوات قادمة . فجاءت ردة الفعل المتحمسة لاحد المدربين قائلا “لا يحق لاحدهم ان يمس المناطق الخاصة فى جسدى” بينما قاموا بشجاعة (بالطبع شجاعة , فقد كنا بمصر فى النهاية ) بالاشارة الى أثدائهم و مؤخراتهم ليوضحوا للصغار أمامهم عن مقصدهم . و بعد جلسات خاصة لاستشارى الاطفال مع الطفلة تبين انه كان يتم التحرش بالطفلة من قبل والدها لفترة من الزمن . و بينما كانت الفتاة الشجاعة مع فريق العمل الشجاع الذين كانوا يؤدون دور رائد مع الاطفال قرروا ان يشركوا والدة الطفلة بالامر . و لكن انكرت الوالدة قول الطفلة و هددتها ان تصمت و قالت لها ان الاطفال الذين يكذبون تكون نهايتهم نار الجحيم , ولا تزال سلمى تعانى حتى الان . Continue reading

Egypt – Sexual Abuse of Children: A Change in Curriculum

Her little arm flew up in the air with courage and enthusiasm as she said, “my daddy does that!!” Salma, the little 4 year old, did not have a clue of the shock and pain that her words were to cause the trainers for the next few years. This eager response came to the trainer saying “no adult can touch the private parts of my body” as they bravely (of course bravely, were in Egypt after all) touched their own breasts and pointed at their own bottoms and vaginas to indicate to the little people in front of them what they were talking about. Continue reading

Street Children: She was rosy cheeked and bright eyed. But she was raped at 9.

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“A faraway place… where there are no people, only the sea and trees. Where people live very far away, because people are bad and they hurt each other and those who are good aren’t able and don’t know how to do anything about the bad people and they can’t help me”. This was Amal’s description when we asked the children at the shelter to draw a picture of what the best place they could think of (her picture is above). Continue reading