Child Prostitution, Empty Swings and Mental Health

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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.

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Street Children and the Girls who were Once Loved by God

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“Go say hello quickly and bend down to kiss her hand, she’s one of the people that takes care of your daughter”. As soon as the short, fair skinned, green eyed, toothless man with a small white cloth hat fitted tightly on his head, had finished instructing his daughter to hurry towards me, she moved in my direction faster than I had time to retreat, grabbing my hand trying to kiss it. I pulled my hand away and stroked her head asking her how she was today. She stares at me but doesn’t respond.

There had been great commotion half an hour earlier when we got word that Lucy’s mother and grandfather had come to see her. Only yesterday we were discussing the one year old and wondering why she was so scared of sounds unlike her other “brothers and sisters’ at the shelter. She had been bought in the day she was born, but unlike others, she did not enjoy or seek physical affection, cried at the slightest sound and was almost always found laying awake, still, in any one of the cots.

We’d been discussing Lucy specifically because she had acted very much out of character the day my husband came to the shelter to visit. Lucy had demanded his attention, accepted being carried by him, allowed him to rock her to sleep the hour he stood and held her. None of us had commented at the time so as not to disturb the natural bond being experienced by the pair, but as soon as my husband had left and Lucy had returned to her isolation, Shaimaa and I were so joyous to have seen her so emotionally responsive that Shaimaa said she’d have to note this on the little girl’s records.

It was during that conversation that I learnt that no one from Lucy’s family had been to see her since she was born. I wondered whether the lack of any maternal contact contributed to her insecure attachments – even though the other one year olds were often abused and hurt and used by their mothers on the street, when they came back to the shelter they were affectionate and always seeking physical attention from those they were familiar with.

So this visit was very timely. Except, after learning of our visitors arrival, Mama Madeeha took Lucy down to meet her mother and a few moments later we heard a piercing scream and cries of a girl desperately trying to convince someone “She’s not my daughter, she’s not my daughter!! My daughter is only a few days old, this is a big girl, I want to see my daughter, my daughter is small and soft, don’t try to trick me.”

I watched from behind the door not wanting to intrude or to scare the fragile girl any more than she was distressed. Mama Madeeha spoke to her gently explaining how her baby had grown up and had to become bigger and that this was good and she should be happy to see her grow. The sweet, calming reassurance of mama Madeeha seemed to calm the girl back into her detached, blank state. She sat back down. Mama Madeeha slowly placed the one year old into her mothers lap and the girl held Lucy without looking at her and started to gently rock her. Lucy, like a fish in water, accepted being held like the daughter she had missed out on being.

I watched for a few minutes. She handed her daughter back with an angry voice that matched neither the apathetic eyes or the caring grip she had of Lucy “I’ll only hold her if you feed me! Feed me, I’m hungry!” I could tell that Mama Madeeha was running out of resources; her role in the organisation was “alternative mother”, she was there to cuddle, feed,  wash, tuck into bed all the under fives. At times her job description was stretched to incorporate new training for children found on the street abandoned like Maha (5), Mahmoud(4) and Maher(3). The three young siblings have never since had anyone come to ask after them. The three little children, when in need for the toilet, would find a private spot between wardrobes or any other furniture and pull down their trousers and get it done. It would be at those times that Mama Madeeha, according to a special training plan provided by the shelter social workers and psychologist would patiently try to alter these behaviours while looking after four one year olds, three four year olds who have escaped very abusive backgrounds and her own three children. Dealing with Lucy’s mother was not part of neither her job description or her training, or her capacity. So she just laughed at the request of food and went to the kitchen to see what she could offer her.

It was then I  walked in; when Lucy’s mother seemed a little calmer. It was then that the man ordered her to come kiss my hand. When I started stroking her head, continuing to do so when she showed no objection and seemed to be calmer, he tells me this:

“She’s a good girl really, wallahy (I swear by god) she’s a really sweet girl, she used to be my favourite. But look at her, she’s mad, she’s crazy now. I just picked her up an hour ago from Al Abasseya” Al Abasseya is the most infamous mental health care institution in Cairo and he whispers the word. He goes on “she’s been there since she gave birth to Lucy, she went mad you know after they raped her, they did what they did to her and there’s nothing a poor father like me can do. It would have been easy to report it to the police, but one of the men is a police man. What is a poor man to do? We must accept our fate and ask God for compensation. God is the greatest prosecutor of the evil.”

I told him he’d done well to bring her to see her daughter. He suddenly looked ashamed and in an apologetic tone said “I’d bring her every day if I could, I’d even take her out of the hospital but I am poor and cannot feed myself and my wife to be able to feed her and her daughter. I bought her to see the girl because I don’t want God to judge me for not doing the right thing. You know, my daughter, she is really good, God used to love her so much before this happened to her, she used to hear the prophet speaking to her, that’s how pure and good she was. But God  has turned angry with her after they did what they did to her.”

Throughout his story telling, the girl looked ahead of her, only moving once to encourage me to carry on stroking her hair when I had paused for a moment. This tiny move she made with her head made my heart ache, ache for the affection she was craving behind those stone cold eyes. I ached for her, for her father who thought God, if God indeed existed in all his loving compassion, would stop loving his child that had been violently gang raped. My heart ached for little Lucy who had become a living, breathing reminder to her mother and grandfather of, in his own words “God’s spell of anger towards the family”.

Mama Madeeha returned with some food. The girl refused it and reached out for her daughter. She sat holding her vertically by her heart, stroking her hair just the way I had been stroking hers moments earlier.