Child Prostitution, Empty Swings and Mental Health

90968_m

Photo by Tim O’Brian

They started running away from the orphanage when they were 11 years old. Nesma was the girl she felt closest to there. Maybe because like her, Nesma wasn’t really an orphan, but had grown up in a “proper” home. And both these homes were abusive. Reena’s sadistic stepmother subjected her to heart wrenching torture, whenever she fought with the little child’s father to spite him; burnt skin still tells of the hours of torture that the young Reena had endured.

Like most children that arrive on the street, escaping familial or institutional abuse, Reena and Nesma were picked up, within an hour, but the local pimp. Their first night in prostitution, sold as virgins for “deflowering”, was in 6th October city to the Arabs that came from the Gulf looking for young virgins. These clients paid the children and their pimp well. So well, in fact, that Reena managed to organise her own clientele and eventually be independent of the older lady that had sold them to these men.

But when at 14 she fell pregnant, and had her baby, she looked for her birth mother. And enticing her with money, she agreed to keep the baby as long as the cash kept coming in weekly. And it did. But a few years later, Reena turned up at the door and her baby was gone. No death certificate, no burial certificate; just the repeated verbal confirmation that her baby had died, that God had “remembered him”. It was then that Reena stopped combing her hair and started roaming the streets looking for her child. The well-groomed teenage prostitute, who only slept with the elite, was now picking up clients at street corners and at microbus stops, just for night-time shelter while she looked for her baby during the day.

There are many situations that you find yourself in when you work with street children that you wouldn’t have imagined to find yourself in otherwise. These are mainly situations of devastating tragedy. Stories that should never involve adults, let alone young humans, who may have not developed the resilience and coping strategies that come with time. But the more I spend time with these children, the more I realise that they have incredible resources, given the circumstances.

One of those situations that I found myself in was roaming the streets of a certain square in Cairo looking for Reena. I had been preparing myself for days for that ache that I would no doubt feel when I saw what I imagined as a child with dirt under nails, wiry hair, ripped clothing and eyes that I knew would haunt me. I knew that talking to her I would see the image of the child she was at 11 when she started leaving the shelter and every age she could have been that would not have led her to that particular traffic light, in those particular clothes, with that particular look in her eyes. I knew if I saw her and she looked at me, that those eyes would have seen the underbelly of human nature and they would look at me with caution at best, with detest at worst. But I also knew that somewhere deep, deep inside, there would be some comfort that three random strangers would roam the streets at night for her.

I remembered the story of why Shaymaa had stuck with this job for so long. On Shaymaa’s first day at the shelter, she saw a nine-year-old girl sitting on the swing, the seat dripping blood from where she had been raped by ten men. The child swinging, while monsters had made that childhood bleed out of her at she sat on it. Preserving that chance of childhood, fighting for the right of children not to be anything but children, in any way they wanted to live that childhood, as long as they are not harmed, not abused, that’s what we were fighting for. That’s what made us do this work. That’s why we braved going out in the streets looking for Reena.

We couldn’t find her begging at the coffee shop that Shaymaa had spotted her in a while ago, so we began asking the other children if the had seen her. The words coming out surreal: “Habeeby (sweetheart) have you seen a girl with uncombed hair, roaming, talking to herself, she looks and acts a bit mad”. I have so many reservations about the vocabulary we are using. I don’t want us to use the word “mad”. I don’t want us to describe her hair the way we have, reducing her to a habit or hairstyle. But the restricted code the children are used to talking in, the small number of minutes we have with them before a street adult appears and we put them and ourselves in danger, are all limited and so “uncombed hair, mad girl, talking to herself” will have to do.

I advocate for street children a lot. I am always humbled by what they teach me, not about the academic subject matter, but about life and friendship. I actually mean that. After my first year of the PhD, I ripped my university cards and created my own ones that read, “I go to university to teach and I go to Street Kids to learn”. The children we spoke to on the street that day taught me about caution and looking out for the less fortunate. To be a child on the street was unfortunate, to be a child on the street with uncombed hair, mad and talking to yourself, was even more so.

The first child we spoke to, wearing oversized, olive coloured overalls and slippers so small all his toes were actually on the ground, was pulling a big rubbish cart behind him. He was from the Zabaleen area in Cairo (an epic percentage of recycling goes on in this secluded area of 600,000 Christian Copts, and poverty and marginalisation and disease – many documentaries are available that I urge you to look at… It always surprises me how many Egyptians don’t know about this place and it’s incredible struggle and history). When we asked him about Reena, his first questions were why we wanted her and who we were. Only when he was satisfied that we were there to help her, he told us he knows who we were talking about, but that she answered to a different name, was working for Sheeba, the street adult that the kids in this area worked for, the he made her work all night and we could find her sleeping on “that” street corner from 7am because that’s when she came after her “work” was finished.

We asked a few other children, the name they all gave us was the same, and all the children making sure it was safe to share her information with us before talking. One child stood out for me. Realising we could help “mad” people he said “look, I don’t honestly know where or when you can find her, it depends on her work you know and how long they keep her. But, I’ll tell you something… There’s an old man that I can point you to, he’s mad and he talks to himself. Do you think you can help the poor thing too?” My heart cracked at the caring spirit of this boy who could not have been older than 7 or 8, with torn slippers and faded trousers and dimples that shone when he smiled, the child who on stumbling on potential help asked for nothing for himself and wanted us to help the older man who he felt such pity for. I ached at the potential within this human being to love society and others and I prayed that some change in circumstance would happen to preserve that spirit and not replace it with the bitterness and justified vindictiveness with which this kindness is often replaced.

Though we didn’t find Reena that night, we spoke to many children telling them about the shelters and the work we do. We let them know they can drop by and eat and play and leave when they want to. This in itself, the outreach work is important. But then, what of Reena?

Do I need to even say how society and structural violence let down Reena as a child? Do I need to talk about the lack of alternative care and social services that weren’t there to step in when Reena’s parents got a divorce and her stepmother started burning her for satisfaction? Where were the official documents that her uncle (didn’t) use to sign her into that orphanage when she was 6 years old telling the shelter her parents had died and they had to take her in. He was a man with good intentions kidnapping her from her father and stepmother because of the physical signs of torture on her body… Where was the orphanage staff when she started spending nights outside the shelter at 11? Where were social services when she gave birth at 15? Where were the mental health institutions and support when her child was either sold, killed, lost or actually had died? And how many of us are guilty of walking hurriedly past tens of Reenas in the street, blaming the children for “running away”?

The reason we were looking for Reena was because when I heard her story, I looked for, and found someone who could help us with the mental health problems of the children I work with in a humane and compassionate manner; two qualities that are incredibly scarce in the world of street children and those with mental health illnesses. I found one such human. We’ll find Reena and we’ll convince her to come with us and we’ll meet her with the psychiatrist who’ll look after her and we’ll help her move into an institution where she can be protected from the harshness of the street. But, is that good enough?

Saving one child at a time is not the goal. The goal is fighting for a system that doesn’t need to save kids because it’s so amazing it already protects them from things they need to be saved from! That’s the goal; lobbying for a change in the structure and services and outlook and attitude. But I’ll tell you what; I’m going to take my own advice “don’t be ashamed of doing little, because little is more than nothing”. So until we can reach that goal, there’s definitely no harm helping one child at a time.

Flames of Cruelty; Setting Fire to Childhood

FIRE-2-GENERIC

Fire. That seemed to be the common theme of my work with street girls in the short visit I made to Egypt this time round. Flames. Burns. Scars. Pain. Fire.

I asked Shaymaa what her name was, the little new arrival that I had not seen there before. She couldn’t have been more than two. She stood with her little crisp packet away from everyone. She hadn’t run to the boxes Shariff had bought, like the other little ones had, she stood and waited. Noor was the one who gave her a packet – I love watching the little ones share, perhaps it’s they who heal one another because no one knows, like them, what needs to be healed and how. She opened it up for her too. Little Hannah stood right where she was given the packet and ate, not making eye contact with anyone, not saying anything, and not making the happy sounds the others were making when excited.

I asked her name and the answer was, “we think it’s Hannah, we spent three weeks calling her by all the names we could think of, but when we said Hannah, she looked at me”. I called the little human by the name she had responded to and asked her to come to me. She came, limping, heavy bodied, the toddler walked towards me like she was a 100 years old. When I lifted her on my lap, she also felt heavy; I am not sure whether it was her physical weight, or the weight of whatever it was that she had suffered. It immediately became clear that she had suffered. Copying the other babies on my lap and around me that were trying to share their crisps by ramming them in my mouth, I saw her little fingers make their way up to my lips, and they stood out between the others. Hannah had not nails. My stomach turned. “No, no please no”. I could hear those words shooting to my brain and those damned tears that I try to control escape. I quickly play with Noor so I don’t stop being helpful.

image

These are different hugs I give her. So many sorries in small embraces like this. I try to hold her in a way that I will so much love to transfer from me to her, to make up for whatever happened. To last her for whatever is yet to come. Hannah breaks me in a way I haven’t felt before. Shaymaa tells me she’ll tell me how she arrived at the shelter later – on our way to take baby Amy to the reconstructive surgeon for her own burns and scars and those stubborn physical reminders of similar abuse that Hannah has endured. And I am left with “How?! And Why?!”. Two small words which seem so difficult for either the activist or the academic in me to answer.

Hannah had arrived at the shelter with a police officer. She was quickly taken to hospital because there did not seem to be a single bone in her body that was not broken, or piece of skin not burnt. She was plastered and wrapped from neck to toe, with only one little opening for her to go to the toilet. The police knew nothing except that a street dog had pulled her out of a rubbish dump and a bawaab (a building porter) had taken her to the police. That’s it. That’s her story – a few words written by a stranger, a few lines that hold so much torture and abuse and paid and betrayal. How can she have been betrayed so much by every power and force and being meant to protect her? The reason she couldn’t speak back to me was because whoever had tortured her, had burnt her tongue.

image

Sometimes I fold. I crumble out of my own selfishness at how stories like this make me react. But it’s not really a story you know, reader. It’s flesh I’ve held, a hint of a smile from stitched lips that were directed at me, it’s a little nail-less finger that made it’s way into my mouth to share it’s food with me, it’s beautiful, big, brown eyes that look at me with a void look that I am free to make my imagination reign with stories of what it could be telling me. So this is not a story, it’s Hannah’s life.

I am sorry this post is more emotional than how I have tried to write before, sorry that my heart and tears and soul bleed on every word I have typed here, but it’s all so raw, so fresh, so real. It’s alive inside the walls of these shelters, on the pavements that are so much kinder than family cruelty. How terrible that there is no need to exaggerate, no need to horrify; but to tell things as they are, in a reality that shames me of being human, that keeps me up, that paralysis my hope. Yet, a reality that shows sparks of humanity coming together again when people give up their time and skills to soothe. The shelter driver driving us four hours, unpaid on his time off, Shaymaa coming to keep us company even though she has left her job and is unpaid, Amira, who accompanied Amy from Alex, so she could have someone she’s familiar with on her trip to the doctor, the doctor himself, who opened the doors of his clinic to us on his day off so we could have it all to ourselves. Humanity.

image

Dr Hany has seen Amy and she is on a four-month treatment plan of creams we got as instructed (thank you Samah), that will soften her skin so that when the reconstructive surgery is performed the skin will be able to stretch. I’ve found an ENT doctor who will see to the puss and infection in her eardrum caused by the hole the monsters drilled in it. Hannah too I have started with her, the incredible Sally Toma (psychiatrist) has volunteered to see her on Saturday to work on her trauma, and will let me know what other care she needs and of course I will campaign for it to be available to her. Sima (the girl who had 3rd degree burns on 80% of her body and hospitals refused to admit her till I managed to get her case to the attention of the ministry) received the care she needed in hospital and the Minister of Social Solidarity called me and told me she will get a monthly allowance and a kiosk to be able to support herself and her little baby.

I may have been able to help and coordinate the healing of physical scars, only the surface of what the flames set to these children have marred, but what of their childhood? Their trust is humans? What of their very soul as they were tortured helpless and hopeless by the only people at those moments who were able to help them? It’s time Egypt, really, really, really, really it is, for alternative care in Egypt to step up and provide safe havens for children like Hannah and Amy and Sima – and the so many others we still haven’t reached. But I’ll tell you what, I kind of wont stop till I make their pains and their screams and tears, as the fires consume them, heard by you.

Fire picture from: http://thomaszinsavage.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/03/FIRE-2-GENERIC.jpg

A Photo Essay: Street Children – The Achievements where Little is More than Nothing.

This post will be regularly updated to collect the happy moments that the children enjoy as a result of all your incredibly responses to this blog – thank you for being the alternative world, a world we’ve created to work parallel to the one that subjects these children to daily oppression and violence.

——

One day I was accompanying a street girl to a doctor to see what we could do about her "rape scar" (a hanging piece of flesh under her right eye - a result of a knife wound she suffer after her first gang rape to mark her as no longer being a virgin). On this three hour bus ride, one of the stories she bravely shared with me was of her birthing experience. She was praising the cosmetic surgeon who had seen her before for this rape scar and who she said had "treated me like a human being, not an animal". When I asked what she was comparing him to she said the doctors that were there during her birth. She recounted the experience that included over 20 medical students checking her dilation without her consent, her horror as the fingers roughly forced their way through her vagina of both male and female students who never spoke to her or explained what they were doing. She told me about one midwife who kicked her because she was screaming too loudly when she was pushing. What seemed to hurt her the most though were the questions and accusations of why she was having a baby so young if she was unmarried and why was the father not with her. There are many horrifyingly painful stories that the street girls live and have shared with me; but this birthing one haunted me the most. The vulnerability and the fear that a child must feel giving birth, facing an unknown that even full grown, fully supported women find difficult was beyond my comprehension.... I went home and wrote in a simple blog about this conversation and about the state of the world in which we live. A beautiful medical student wrote to me, not an emotional email of how upset my post had made her, but a well thought of plan about what she was going to do about it to fix it. We went through her plan of who she was going to contact for access and permissions to admit the street girls to the hospital she was training at. We arranged meetings with shelter staff and she met the girls that would go in to give birth under her care. The photo in this post is of the first street baby to be born in dignity. The street girl arrived at hospital supported, respected, soothed and cared for and delivered her healthy abd beautiful baby in a caring environment, for the first time ever. Thank you Yara for being the change we want in the world, thank you for being part of a new generation of medical students who give me hope that there is still good worth writing for, worth fighting for. Nothing quite beats the sense of achievement this brings. Here's to academia and knowledge that matter. Xx

One day I was accompanying a street girl to a doctor to see what we could do about her “rape scar” (a hanging piece of flesh under her right eye – a result of a knife wound she suffer after her first gang rape to mark her as no longer being a virgin).
On this three hour bus ride, one of the stories she bravely shared with me was of her birthing experience. She was praising the cosmetic surgeon who had seen her before for this rape scar and who she said had “treated me like a human being, not an animal”. When I asked what she was comparing him to she said the doctors that were there during her birth.
She recounted the experience that included over 20 medical students checking her dilation without her consent, her horror as the fingers roughly forced their way through her vagina of both male and female students who never spoke to her or explained what they were doing. She told me about one midwife who kicked her because she was screaming too loudly when she was pushing. What seemed to hurt her the most though were the questions and accusations of why she was having a baby so young if she was unmarried and why was the father not with her.
There are many horrifyingly painful stories that the street girls live and have shared with me; but this birthing one haunted me the most. The vulnerability and the fear that a child must feel giving birth, facing an unknown that even full grown, fully supported women find difficult was beyond my comprehension….
I went home and wrote in a simple blog about this conversation and about the state of the world in which we live. A beautiful medical student wrote to me, not an emotional email of how upset my post had made her, but a well thought of plan about what she was going to do about it to fix it.
We went through her plan of who she was going to contact for access and permissions to admit the street girls to the hospital she was training at. We arranged meetings with shelter staff and she met the girls that would go in to give birth under her care.
The photo in this post is of the first street baby to be born in dignity. The street girl arrived at hospital supported, respected, soothed and cared for and delivered her healthy abd beautiful baby in a caring environment, for the first time ever. Thank you Yara for being the change we want in the world, thank you for being part of a new generation of medical students who give me hope that there is still good worth writing for, worth fighting for.
Nothing quite beats the sense of achievement this brings. Here’s to academia and knowledge that matter. Xx

10592744_10154498108230231_5452340200697271590_n

This photo will forever remain incredibly dear to my heart… It was taken this week after the SAFE team had delivered training to my street babies on how to protect their bodies from sexual abuse and had just received their certificates of completing the training Thank you Sara Aziz and your lovely team for agreeing to deliver the training completely free to the shelter… i love you xxx

reconstructive surgeon

Perhaps nothing in the world that I have done, or will ever do, could feel as good as being able to facilitate this… This is the angel reconstructive surgeon who generously invited me and my street girls to remove the scars I often talk about… I have blurred the girls face for obvious reasons… He performs these procedures for free… these are my alternative communities and the reason why I don’t fundraise. Up till 2012 Dr Hany Hamam had performed 137 reconstructive surgeries free to Libyan and Syrian refugees… he has since then also honoured my requests that he extend his offer to children who get bitten by stray dogs in Cairo, but are not necessarily street children. The one glimpse of heaven on earth, is to fight a losing cause; and not lose it.

DSC_0228

The great Rugby club in Egypt, moved by the blog offered training, donations and access to their grounds for the street kids they met.

10464261_10154352075645231_6459440565127118344_n

Mia who once wrote to me saying: “Hi Nelly, I just wanted to say that I am a huge fan of your work with street children and I was wondering if there is anyway I can help.” Mia has since been a reliable and dedicated friend and art teacher not just to the one girl I was looking for a mentor for, but to the street girls at shelter more generally. The feedback from the girls has been wonderful. It always means so much to them to have volunteers. They told me knowing people helped them for no money was the closest thing they felt to having good family. Mia is another beautiful example of how skills, and not money, build a more beautiful world, how we have the power to create kinder alternative communities to the ones we sometimes find hateful or unsatisfactory. Thank you Mia for helping me still believe in this world and for not just reading the blog and thinking it’s a sad world but for getting in touch and giving your all. You literally made the world a better place xx

IMG_20140914_222714

I personally believe that one of the best things that we can give these children, beside the basic rights and services, is love. The comfort and love that Shariff shares with the children is next to none… You honour and humble me with your gentleness towards the children and it’s no wonder you are able to calm the most irritable and comfort the most distressed of them… I love you for this xx

IMG_20140915_151255

A beautiful photo of the hands of little children in Canada and the bracelets they have been making for me to give to the other beautiful street kids that I meet along the way… what a happy moment this is to know that little hearts across the continents are touched and giving to other little souls so far away… These little children were so touched by the stories of street children in Egypt that I shared and wanted to make something they could post and that would be easy for me to carry around… They have an afternoon club called HOPE (helping other people everywhere) and they make stuff to sell for local charities… their project this time was for the street kids

IMG_20140915_152434

When the coldest winter hit Cairo, I used the blog and social media to ask everyone to share their winter clothes with the street children… An incredible effort started and the people involved are too many to even start to mention here… but the photo shows where the clothes were collected in London (thank you Judy and Tara) and packed and organised in Cairo (Thank you Ahmed Nader)… and the getting them from one country to another involved strangers and friends and everyone was just incredible with this… special thanks to Rabia, Tom, Su Zee who carried luggage… and all those who donated their kids clothes!!!

caravan 1

The night before my wedding party in Cairo, I was at the hair dressers getting my hair done (yes, the local one, the night before lol|). Afterwards, at around 11.30pm I was meeting Nawara, Roba and Shady for the first time three angels who had been reading my blog who I had never had the pleasure of meeting before. After a couple of hours sharing some stories of the street children I had known, after they were moved to both laughter and tears, we agreed they would visit the shelter to meet the street children. What they did not know at this point was that I always have a filtering session with people while I was in Egypt to make sure the children would not be “used” by anyone for their work and projects (a decision I had taken when I dedicated my time away from PhD research to make sure I could give back to the children and not use them as mere subjects for my PhD data). But I loved Nawara, Shady and Roba. I loved the passion with which they spoke of their plans. Caravan – the group of story tellers and performances these three were part of, planned to engage university students, amateur story tellers, with the street children to tell their stories. A few sessions were arranged at the boys and girl’s shelters. None of the children’s stories were changed or edit. 13 children’s stories were told with the exact words and expressions chosen by the children, creating a new avenue for the most marginalised voices to be given a window of expression to an audience that would normally not have access to it. It was only when Shariff came looking for me and said “we’re getting married in a few hours, do you wanna go home get some rest” that I had to leave and that they realised I had a wedding in a bit But I left my heart and passion with the three who did an incredible job and something I am so proud of having somehow contributed to just by writing a blog, and they took this, turning it, through their weeks of practice and hard work into something extremely real, extremely valid and credible. One of the beautiful reflections made by the team was team: “By the end of the rehearsals period and performance date, we were able to identify a conceptual change to the tellers personal commitment towards the kids and their stories, and to identify with the show as an ethically challenging responsibility towards those kids and the acknowledgement that by telling these stories we are only connecting dotes between the young boys and girls and an audience of not more than 150 attendees.”

10489803_10154341008285231_7876113502468164184_n

The ability and the opportunity to inspire people into action, is an incredible gift.. The photo below is of two 14 year olds in America that I have never met. The children have been reading my blog posts on street girls and were moved into action. Diana, one of these 2 girls wrote to me over the last few months on how her and her church friends spent their spring break baby sitting, doing yard work and “hiring (themselves) out” to raise enough money to buy feminine hygiene stuff to put these bags together for each one of the street girls at the shelter. They’ve asked me to find a way to get these bags across so the children I work with know that other children think of them, care about them and are working towards helping them in some way. In the midst of all the horrific statuses and news and pictures shared on Facebook these days, these photos and this status are equally important. This is a reminder that you can inspire and be inspired and that you have the power to do and not just be ‘done to’… There is still good in this world; if you can’t find it or see it, then do it and be it.

photo01571

This photo was drawn by a girl who has been raped by her step father since she was nine years old. The incredibly brave mother gave up the little security she had in the form of a home and husband and having no shelter to turn to, left to the streets with Amal and her 4 sisters. The sisters got separated in different shelters catering for different ages, while the mother searched for a hospital who would issue a report saying Amal was no longer a virgin due to rape, so she could be admitted to a shelter. Having been subjected to two virginity checks at their local hospital where her step father worked, he was able to bribe the administration to change the report. Amal’s mother did not give up and took her daughter to a different town and after the third virginity check, Amal was admitted to Hope Village for Young Street Mothers (a shelter that homes non virgin girls – and yes, this split is necessary in a culture where a woman’s value is hinged on a thin membrane between her legs). Each of the girls was at a different shelter and their mother had nowhere to turn to but the streets, highlighting another gap in services that vulnerable women in Egypt must face. After reading the post about this girl, an amazing human in Egypt paid a very long period of rent upfront and we bought the woman off the streets and she is now in her own home with her daughters around her again – I’m currently working with Esraa on getting her trained on a handy craft so she can generate her own income.

10624622_10154495561485231_3977404163308256216_n

I received a call about a girl in Alexandria that was burnt so badly her bones were showing through. 3rd degree burns in over 80% of her body meant she was a liability to any hospital. Added to that was the fact she was a street girl so had no papers or ID. After 6 hours of media pressure, I received a call from the Minister of Social Solidarity who assured me that in the morning, an ambulance would pick the girl up and take her to hospital for admission. True to their words, the girl was admitted, her daughter allowed to visit and she has been promised a kiosk to be able to live off once she’s recovered. Thank you Nesma for being affected to get the right people on board 🙂

10308565_10154470016895231_5693509752491536804_n

Donna Coyle is one of the beautiful souls who having read about the street girls in my blogs got in touch to offer to be a part of this parallel world we create Since being in touch, Donna has faithfully and regularly visited the street girls shelter, after getting her friends to donate shampoos and creams. She arrives with her gifts to pamper the girls, do their hair and also teach them the skill of hair dressing so that they may pick it up and maybe earn an independent living from it themselves… Thank yoy Donna for reminding me of the absolute beauty that humanity still has to offer us… and on a personal note, thank you for giving a very real meaning to the impact of the work I do that sometimes leaves me frustrated, heart broken and poor you remind me it’s all worth it xxx

10271488_10154089571360231_6250256155583807824_n

a few days before Eid, one of the older girls asked me what time I would be arriving on the day of festivities… then she stopped speaking and looked at me for a moment before saying “Of course you’re not going to come… you have family and friends outside of here that you’ll be spending the day with”… She had shamed me without knowing because I hadn’t thought about Eid or who I would be spending it with… but in the end, me, Shariff and Adelazim bought the kids gifts and balloons and spent the day with them… it was the best Eid ever!

IMG_20140915_153550

After a day out, the little ones in the shelter who are starting their first day at school, were trying on their school uniforms bought by the lovely May AbdelAzim. New starts and hopefully a new life where these little ones can be spared the pain of their mothers… Also… thank you for the IceCream trip that was made to the kids 🙂

1546215_10154084051795231_8519855798344126312_n

It’s such an incredible achievement that this blog is being read in over 172 countries by over 105,000 people… The amount of awareness raised and help shared through it has been incredible… thank you xx

Image

I’m going to start this post by telling you what criminals who traffic children into the UK do to them as soon as they arrive in the country. They dress up as British police, take them to abandoned buildings, beat and violently gang rape the children. They do this to scare the child from authority, so that they don’t trust anyone that approaches to help them. I’ve always believed that torture was never just about physical abuse. Torture is about that and about taking away any hope you have that this torture can stop, or that one day you can reach out to someone who can help make it all go away.

On the records, 10 children are trafficked into the UK every week, destined for sexual exploitation, domestic servitude or child labour – that’s over 500 children a year. Imagine who many more never come to the authority’s attention? 6 out of the 10 children, who are recorded eventually as trafficked, disappear. The authorities don’t find them and no one really ever knows what happens to them. But an even more audacious problem is that even when the children come to the attention of the authorities, they are often prosecuted for the offenses they have been forced to commit.

It’s an important moment for us in the UK. It’s important because we can DO something about it. Britain is publishing the world’s first Modern Slavery Bill under which perpetrators of the crime will be jailed for life. The Modern Slavery Bill is the first of its kind in Europe, and one of the first in the world, to specifically address slavery and trafficking in the 21st century. Though this is all excellent and great – we need children to be specifically referred to so that they are afforded legal guardianship to protect them and keep them in the system. The Netherlands and Scotland are GREAT at doing this.

We need to lobby for three things:

–       Every child should have a legal guardian – someone to ensure they get the support they need to stay safe

–       Trafficked children should not be prosecuted for crimes they have been forced to commit

–       There should be a specific offense for child trafficking and exploitation

To find out more about the Modern Slavery Bill:

http://www.parliament.uk/business/committees/committees-a-z/joint-select/draft-modern-slavery-bill/

I recently attended a UNICEF campaign training session and I want to share with you the following information on how you can help. Do this – it doesn’t take time, it DOES make a difference and it will make you feel amazing when something gets done… so here it is…

If you don’t feel up to meeting your MP… please write this letter to the Home Secretary, Theresa May. Make sure you include your own address in the letter. Here’s the address to save you time searching for it:

Rt Hon Theresa May MP
Secretary of State for the Home Department
The Home Office
2 Marsham St
London SW1P 4DF

And if you don’t know what to write – here’s a good template you can use:

To the Rt Hon Theresa May MP,

I’m devastated to know that at least 10 children are trafficked every week in the UK.

The Modern Slavery Bill has the opportunity to transform the lives of trafficked children by making sure law protects them. Please don’t let the Bill fall short of its potential. For every child who has been sold, sexually exploited or forced into slavery, I urge you to ensure the Modern Slavery Bill includes strong measures to protect children. Specifically:

  • Every unaccompanied child should have a legal guardian – someone who is there to look out for them, hold authorities to account and help children cope with any abuse they’ve experienced.
  • It’s shameful that trafficked children are prosecuted for crimes they have been forced to commit. The law must be changed to protect them.
  • Very few child traffickers are ever held to account under current laws. There needs to be a specific offence for child trafficking and exploitation, to ensure those responsible are prosecuted. 

If you are feeling up to it and want to do more than write the letter, contact your MP’s office to book an appointment. Try calling and follow up with an email. All you need to do is take the above letter and tell them you would like him or her to attend the next scheduled reading of the Modern Slavery Bill and would like them to represent your concerns in child protection and that the laws on prosecuting the children and not affording them legal guardianship needs to change.

Ask your MP to keep you informed about what is happening with the Bill – it’s your right to ask this. Remember the MP represents YOU.

To find your MP

http://findyourmp.parliament.uk/

Some General Information on Child Trafficking:

Trafficking in persons’ shall mean the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation. Exploitation shall include, at a minimum, the exploitation of the prostitution of others or other forms of sexual exploitation, forced labour or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude or the removal of organs (Palermo Protocol, adopted 2000)

  • Child trafficking differs from adult trafficking in that it need not involve coercion or deception
  • Any situation involving children being recruited and moved for the purposes of exploitation is considered trafficking as a child is deemed unable to give consent to their own exploitation

I hope you’ve found this post helpful. If you have and you write the letter or visit your MP, please write and let me know.

Picture from the UNICEF campaign website.

“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.”

مصر: الاعتداء الجنسي على الاطفال : وتغيير فى المناهج

Image

(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