Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Egypt's growing number of street children need help

The Egyptian Gazette
Egypt's street children in need of help

Monday, February 27, 2012

Alaa Koddous

CAIRO - In a crowd, it's difficult to spot the little street children, but they are there, and their numbers are growing.

Ziko Reda, a 15-year-old street child, spends all day in the street rather than going to school, in order to earn some money for his family.

"I don’t want to go to school and I'm not interested in education," says Reda, whose clothes are torn and filthy. "School doesn’t bring me money,” says Reda, not realising that it is not a matter of what one earns but how the money is earned.

Reda, who cleans cars stuck in traffic jams in Nasr City, adds that money, not education, buys everything you need in life, explaining that his father and mother are divorced and he has to earn money for his mother, and his younger brother and sister.

"I'm responsible for my family. I have to bring home at least LE150 ($24.85) per day," he stresses, while scanning the traffic for cars to clean.

Reda works for 15 hours per day, only eats one fuul (broad bean) or taa'miya sandwich during all that time; he must then return home with dinner for his family.

"I wake up every day at 6:00am and begin my work at 7:00. I return home again at 10pm with everything my family needs and give my mother whatever money’s left over.

"In the early morning there are thousands of motorists going to work, so I can make some nice money. In the afternoon they come back home, so I can make more money; in the interval, I rest for one hour and eat my sandwich," he adds.

Reda is convinced that all he wants in life is to make money by whatever means.

Government studies of 2007 and 2009 concluded that there were 10,000 street children in Egypt, although, according to the world Health Organisation, there are really more than 1 million.

Many street children have escaped from abusive homes or left rural areas looking for work in the city. Once on the street, they work collecting rubbish, begging, cleaning and directing cars into parking spaces, in order to live.

According to experts, these street children are like 'clay' that can easily be worked and exploited in many harmful ways.

"The Education Ministry is responsible for this problem," Gamal el-Arabi, the Education Minister said at a workshop, which discussed sending street children to special schools, with the aim of their being reintegrated into society.

"We cannot ignore this problem, which has become worse since the revolution," he asserted. The street children are very prone to violence, with 86 per cent of them describing this as a regular issue, while 50 per cent have been raped, according to a UNICEF study of 2000.

Many thugs and other unsavoury characters pay street children to commit crimes. Street children have been blamed for many of the unpleasant incidents that have happened recently, prompting Hani Helal, the head of the Egyptian Association for Children’s Rights, to refuse to celebrate the National Day for Street Children’s Rights this year.

"More than 160 of these children were made scapegoats for the Mohamed Mahmoud Street, Qasr Al-Aini and Port Said Stadium incidents, where almost 200 lives were claimed in violent clashes," he says.

“The police must stop arresting them in groups, while those in prison must immediately be set free.”

The Association says that the police torture street children, to make them confess to crimes they haven’t committed.

"Street children are well organised," comments Ahmed Hamdi, a downtown shop owner. "Every morning, they meet near my shop and agree where they’re going to work in the vicinity that day; they then meet again in the same place at the end of the day.”

Many street children are just tools in the hands of criminals, who exploit their need for money to perform illegal acts.

"These street children are hired by criminals to beg in the streets," says Um Mohamed, a downtown tissue seller. "They pay the child’s family LE25 ($4.14) to beg in the streets for them," she adds sadly.

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