Sometimes Being a Girl is All the Reason You Need to Migrate to the Street.

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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.

From the Diary of a British-Egyptian Girl: First Working Day in Egypt – Queues and Personal Space

Nathan Destro and his “personal space protector” on the streets of Johannesburg. Photos by Christo Doherty

I left him to speak, as he leaned over me and with his well moisturised arm reached out with the money having invaded my personal space (a concept that actually does not exist in Egypt), was paying for three canned drinks. Only when he spoke to the kiosk vendor saying “a pack of tissues” (without saying please) did I realise he was not, in fact, after a piggyback ride. Just before this, I had bought a bottle of water and was waiting for my change.

As the man (who was very smartly dressed and sported a pair of D&G sunglasses and smelt rather awesome) abused the notion of taking turns, I turned around – while he was waiting for his change – and I said, with the sweetest smile I could muster, “excuse me, can I please ask you something?” Feeling quite smug, he looked at me with an I-know-I’m-hot-and-you-couldn’t-resist-but-find-an-excuse-to-speak-to-me smile, replied “sure, of course”. “Thank you! I’m new to Egypt and I am really excited to learn about the customs here… and I was wondering if you could please explain to me (the smile now quickly disappearing off my lips) why it is you are completely unaware of anyone’s presence but yourself, what is it that went through your head that made you possibly think it was OK not to acknowledge someone else, what about you is so amazing that you felt it was not a problem to take my turn in the queue?” Completely taken aback he mumbled something about his car. I looked around and saw he had left the door of his BMW open and I went on to say “Ohhhhh, I see, so I am supposed to feel better about having walked half an hour in the scorching sun, been harassed about 15 times in the walk, because you are worried the a/c effect was decreasing? I apologize”. He didn’t reply.

I was angry. I realised this was a huge problem on the streets of this beautiful city. No one cared about anyone else’s feelings, anyone else’s priorities, efforts, problems. People didn’t give you personal space because as soon as someone else saw it, they would think it was a gap for them to push into. This is so contradictory with the nature of Egyptian people who if they saw you in distress or in need all get together to help you in anyway they can. However, it seemed that the idea that there is “not enough” – of whatever it is, time, food, etc. drove people away from that helpful, kind nature into one demonstrated by the good looking but nasty natured man of this morning. It had nothing to do with how well educated or cultured you were. Manners in Egypt are one of those mystic things; there are no rules and no patterns of behaviour that are common to any one class, group, or creed. Each person in each of these grouping had his or her own set of rules of conduct – and it is beyond me what this is based on.

This was the topic of conversation with a working class girl from the suburbs on our way home. Her interpretation of the behaviour was that people “where you come from” are involved in setting the rules that govern them and their behaviour and so they respect it and respect each other, but, she went on to explain, over here in Egypt, people were never involved, they never had a say in what rules should govern them and so they each created their own that suited them, that would get their stuff done with the least amount of hassle in the shortest possible time. It doesn’t really matter if she was right or wrong, what mattered was how political that comment was and how her being so analytical cheered me up. There are clearly boundary issues that need to be dealt with, but I’ve decided not to be so angry with those who are on their feet sweating for hours to get to and from work when they push in anymore, but elitists who step out of their BMW’s and push in, will not stop getting a piece of my mind. Every time. “Queuing in Egypt” is just as much an Oxymoron as “British-Egyptian” and apart from the option of walking around in hula-hoops from head to toe; I can forget this British etiquette in Egypt altogether.