Street children pose for a photograph in Cairo's Tahrir Square. (Reuters file)

Egypt’s street children had a lot to gain from the country’s revolution. However, change has come slowly if at all, and in many ways, their cause has been pushed off course. Increasing poverty, a growing shadow economy, and continued political instability, have proven challenges to the safety of these children.

The issue of street children is not a new phenomenon in Egypt, and even before the revolution, these children were often found at corners and under bridges – begging, cleaning cars, or selling tissue paper. In 2005, the ESCWA estimated that there were anywhere between 200,000 to 2 million children on the streets. Other sources claimed that there were even up to 3 million on the streets. With a government resistant to social research and data, the real number of children on the streets remains unknown.

voices post VOICES: Egypt’s Street Children   Victims of Political InstabilityLike many Egyptians, these children have become intimately involved in the revolution. During sit-ins, many homeless families and children wander toward Tahrir Square to find work and even just a place to sleep at night. Street children adopt tents to take shelter among the activists. Small schools and shelters have been set up in the square and downtown for children’s safety and education. Vending carts with seeds or sweet potatoes, some being manned by kids as young as nine, line the streets of every protest. Young boys have joined the front lines of the clashes.

Yet despite the rise and fall of revolutionary fervor and social change, street children remain victims of the state’s mismanagement and disregard for human rights, and are generally forgotten by society. There have been ongoing reports of sweeping arrest campaigns resulting in the arrest of thousands of children over the past year and a half. Children are often apprehended during clashes or protests, but at other times they are picked up randomly. One child reported that he was in Tahrir Square buying a laser pointer when he was dragged off by a policeman. The detainees, sometimes as young as five, are often accused of ‘thuggery,’ ‘theft,’ ‘resisting authorities,’ and ‘damage of public property.’

“The political and societal consequences of Egypt’s growing population of street children are vast, and serious steps must be taken to address this issue.” – Amira Mikhail, Egyptian child advocate

At a recent conference held between civil society and relevant government officials, Ahmed Moselhy, a representative of the Egyptian Coalition for Child Rights, reported that over 1,000 minors under the age of 18 have been killed in the past seven months. The well-known case of Omar Salah, one of the victims, demonstrates the government’s blatant role. On February 3, at the age of around 10, Omar was shot in the chest twice by military personnel in an ‘accidental’ show of force. Almost two months later, the lawyers and Omar’s family are still struggling against a court that is dragging its feet despite clear evidence implicating the accused in Omar’s death. In a report released April 4, the Popular Campaign for the Protection of Children confirmed that the courts have been working with an altered forensic report favoring the defendant.

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A street child takes a nap during a protest in Cairo's Tahrir Square. (Reuters file)

In addition to reports of child deaths, thousands have been detained and incarcerated. The alarming treatment of children post-apprehension is in clear violation of both local and international law. Reports of physical and sexual abuse are common, reaching the degree of severe beatings, torture, and rape. Many of the children are not sent to age-appropriate institutions, but are kept in cells with adult criminals, thus subjected to further abuse. But even juvenile detention centers are in dire condition. Horrific stories of abuse, even between the children themselves, make it difficult to recommend such centers as a viable alternative.

Despite some legal gains in 2008 when portions of the Child Law (Law No. 12 of 1996) were revised, the greatest challenge remains the law’s implementation. In fact, it is a sad irony that the very people who bear the responsibility of implementing these laws are often the first to break them. Article 4 says, “The State shall provide the child deprived of family care with alternative care,” clearly mandating the state’s responsibility for the protection of displaced children. And yet the Egyptian government remains in violation of their own local law, not to mention their commitment to international law. The Convention on the Rights of Children clearly indicates the responsibility of the state to protect a child’s right to protection, care, education, and health.

For years, Egyptian civil society and international non-governmental organizations have worked to improve the lives of these children. However, under the Muslim Brotherhood’s rule, the recently drafted NGO law threatens to create crippling obstacles for civil society. Many NGOs rely on foreign funding for development and charity work. Now, with the new draft law, NGOs and other similar institutions are worried about their ability to keep up with the changing policies and regulations.

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A child street vendor pulls a snack cart in Cairo's Tahrir Square. (AP file)

The political and societal consequences of Egypt’s growing population of street children are vast, and serious steps must be taken to address this issue. These children are becoming further alienated from society. Policies are restrictive, and many of these children cannot go to school, join the workforce, or in some cases, even obtain a national identity documents, including their own birth certificates. Certain proposals from the current government, if passed into law, would be catastrophic for children’s development. For example, the Ministry of Social Affairs and Insurance announced last year that 17 million EGP would be allocated to build self-sustaining cities for street children where they would be kept until they were ‘ready to be rehabilitated back into society.’ Fortunately, this proposal has not yet been passed. Such ideas are far from effective and keep civil society on edge about the future of street children’s lives under the current government.

With up to three million street children (a number that could be larger than the actual membership of the Muslim Brotherhood), Egypt is faced with a growing portion of society that is disillusioned and uneducated, a disaster scenario given the economy’s downward spiral. The government’s policies are essentially fostering an accelerated growth of poverty in Egypt, which could lead the country to long-term instability.

The Egyptian government carries the responsibility of tackling this serious and deepening problem, starting with prevention of child runaways in each home, while addressing the immediate needs of each child already on the streets. Serious reform is needed, and the unimpeded work of civil society groups  is essential for providing Egypt’s children with their inherent and national rights.

This post was originally published on FikraForum.org.

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 VOICES: Egypt’s Street Children   Victims of Political Instability

Amira Mikhail

Amira Mikhail is a member of the Popular Campaign for the Protection of Children (Egypt).