By Amira El Feky
What does street child really mean?
The statistics on Egypt’s street children are confusing and unclear. In 1999 the Egyptian government stated the official number of street children was 17,228. Twelve years later the government estimated the number of street children to exceed three million. National and international NGOs disagree on the number of street children and some refuse to even give an estimate. Nobody knows exactly how many street children there are.
There are various explanations for the lack of consent on the number of street children. Some blame the lack of resources to conduct extensive research, while others point out that street children move and are hence difficult to count. Sometimes the children go home for a few days or months and return to the streets afterwards. Many of the children do not have birth certificates. They do not appear in any statistics and are completely invisible to the government.
The most fundamental reason, however, lies elsewhere. It is the lack of a definition for street child. As a matter of fact, nobody really knows what a street child is. Is a child who sells tissues after school a street child? A child who cleans cars during the day and who sleeps in a home at night? Does a street child have to be homeless? Poor? Dirty?
Last year, I was walking in the streets of Korba, Heliopolis. It was a Friday morning, very quiet, when a boy selling tiny portions of cotton candy walked up to me. “Miss, Miss, do you want cotton candy?” I thanked him and said no and explained that I was on my way to the gym and that cotton candy was not part of my diet at the moment. This made him laugh and we stood on the pavement for a bit to chat. I asked him if he sleeps in the street. He gave me an almost indignant look and said “No, Miss. I work because I’m poor but I am not a street child. Yesterday, some boys came to me and stole my money. Those were real street children!”
This boy was walking barefoot. His hands and feet were dirty and he had bruises all over his face. His pants were too big for him, so he had to hold them with one hand while walking. Although he could not have been older than 10, his voice was hoarse. Every passerby would have called this boy a street boy, but he didn’t define himself as a street child. To him, only children who stole were street children.
When asked whether she was a street girl, a girl replied: “How can I be a girl of the street? The street does not give birth!”
The status of “street child” is not absolute or inescapable. Yet we believe we have identified the characteristics that turn non-street children into street children. By doing so, we create a distance and a barrier between “us” and “them” where “we” are normal and “they” are not. It is self-evident that this marginalisation makes a sophisticated approach to the matter very difficult, if not impossible. It blurs our vision and it keeps us from acknowledging something we tend to ignore: street children might not have as much in common as we like to believe. The truth is, street children are a group of people as homogeneous as brunettes or men with moustaches.
In fact, the only thing street children share is their special relationship with the street. Instead of using the street as a means to get from A to B, street children use it as a workplace, or as a home. They spend their free time and their working hours in the street. They make friends in the street. They love and hate and fight in the street. As the term indicates, the only difference between street children and other children is that the former are in the street, while the latter are not.
How do children become street children?
The story of S.
S. must be around 18 years old. She does not have a birth certificate and she does not know her age. S. explained to me that her story with the street began when her father remarried. “My mum gave birth to my sister and passed away and my father got married again after six weeks so his wife would take care of us but she made him beat me.”
S. realised that she could not stay at home so she escaped and went to live in an orphanage. “He came to the place and told me that my sister missed me. I felt so sorry for him, he cried in front of me,” she said.
S. went back home, expecting things to get better, but nothing changed. “His wife made him beat me again. He beat me and insulted me and tied me to a chair for two days. He put the ends of two cables in the electric socket and he connected the other two ends with the chair. When the chair moved I got electric shocks. He tied me to the chair with two metal chains and he left me there for two days, without food or drinks. I could not use the toilet. But I survived and I stayed.”
S. stayed, although she was so heavily abused, because she was scared of what might happen to her on the street. “I thought about going to the street. But I thought, if I do that a guy who is drugged or has a knife could do something to me. He could attack me and I would not be able to do anything.” Eventually, she could not take her father’s abuse anymore. She left and became a street girl.
The story of A.
A. is twelve years old. His parents sent him out begging since he was a little child. “I wanted to go to school. I wanted to read like the other children but our situation was different. I had to beg but I hated begging. I hated when the people looked away,” he said.
A. was so upset about having to beg that he left his home at the age of eight. “I lived in the street and of course I had to beg but at least I could keep the money. Then I found this shelter.” A. moved to the shelter. On his first day he asked a social worker if he could call his mother. He called her and asked if he could come home. He promised to be a good boy but said that he never wanted to beg again. “My mother said no, so now I live here.”
A. now goes to school and he is the best student in his class.
The story of another girl
One street girl, D. (14), told me the story of her friend. “She was living with her mother and her stepfather. He did things to her, you know… After her mother died he kicked her out of the apartment although it was hers, she had inherited it.”
D.’s friend is now living in the street. She is 14 and pregnant and she is selling her body. “For the money. But this is because her uncle and her mother’s husband slept with her. Her own uncle. He should protect her from everything, not sleep with her.”
A psychologist who works with street children explains: “Abuse or rape by maharem, incest, happens a lot. When this happens something in the girl breaks. The feeling of safety is gone forever. She will never feel safe or protected again and she feels that she is the only one who can protect herself, so she goes to the street and thinks she will protect herself. And then one guy rapes her, and then another one, and everything starts falling apart.”
These were only three stories out of many thousands. None of these children are the same, none of them share a similar story. And that is the answer to the question of why children go to the street. Every girl has her own reasons, every boy his own motivation to leave home and choose the street; parental divorce, abuse in the family, neglect and sometimes poverty, and they occur in all possible variations. In spite of these differences, street children are all the same to us: a category of people we fail to define but always succeed in marginalising.
When children become street children they also become part of street life. The street, a public space for us, becomes a private space for them. One girl, W. (12), explained to me: “I would always sit next to Umm Khaled. When somebody would come and talk to me she would shout at them and send them away. This was her place, you know?” Umm Khaled was sitting on the pavement in Ramses Square. She did not own that space, nor was she selling anything, but she decided that these square metres were hers and that it was in her power to let people in. She had created her own little parcel, public and accessible to us but private and restricted to the street people.
It is not only the children’s use of the street that changes; they also become part of a whole different social system. When street children interact with us, when they clean our cars and sell us tissues, we are simply their customers. Most of the time, we are as faceless to them as they are to us. The most common answer I got when asking street children about their views on society were rather pragmatic: “Some people are good, some people are bad.”
Street children seek the acceptance of other street people and of people they know and love much more than they seek ours; we do not matter as much to them as we might believe.
To many of us the street seems like a chaotic space without any regulations or restrictions, but this could not be further from the truth. Street children might not be following Egyptian law, but they do follow the street law. Life on the street is just as regulated as life outside of it, but the rules are different.
Almost every area has a leader. These leaders do not have to be heading a gang of evil and criminal street people as we like to imagine. Very often, they are street children themselves, offering drugs, protection and help to the children in exchange for money or sex.
A former street girl, D. (14), explained: “There was one woman, the woman from under the bridge, who gave drugs to everyone. She told me that if I wanted to stay, I needed to pay. I told her I did not have any money but she insisted, so I tried everything to get her the 20 pounds every day.”
Every day D. paid to sleep under the bridge with her and with other street children. She was paying rent to the woman to use a place that is technically public. In their areas the leaders have almost unlimited power, as D.’s story shows: “One day, she tried to give me an injection but I said no, so she kicked me out from under the bridge and she insulted me and whenever she would see me, she would send her kids to beat me and steal my money. There was nothing I could do.”
A psychologist explained to me why the conventional concept of freedom does not apply when it comes to the street: “You ask a girl what she likes about the street and she will say that she is free, that nobody can do anything to her or take anything from her and that she is making money and no one can harm her. Then you ask her what she does not like and she will tell you people have sex with her against her will and that some steal her money. She will say she cannot find work or make money. She will nullify everything she said before.”
The idea of freedom in the street is merely an illusion. Street children are not free. They have bills to pay. It is just the currency that might differ.
What does this mean for us?
It is easy for us to categorise and label street children. To us, they are ruthless criminals, beggars, the puppets of unknown forces, drug addicts or miserable victims. They all come from the same background, probably a slum. They were either kicked out of their homes or they chose the street as a space of unlimited fun and freedom. But all our categories, all our labels, are highly deficient.
Ironically, NGOs and individuals who work with street children or advocate for their rights largely stick to those same labels. Instead of condemning what the street children do, however, they find excuses and explanations and address our compassion with heart-breaking stories. These stories are true and heart-breaking but it is questionable whether telling them serves the goal of advocating street children’s rights or if they merely serve to “raise awareness”.
While “raising awareness” sounds noble, its true impact is often overrated. We are all aware that there are street children, we see them every day. What we are not aware of is that it is our perception of street children that must change. We have to become aware that the barrier that exists between “us” and “them” is of our own creation and cannot be overcome by pity alone. In fact, pity is counterproductive as it only deepens the gap between “us” and “them”.
NGOs and advocates for street children’s rights are often oblivious to the fact that there is no such thing as “street children’s rights”. Unlike human rights, children’s right and labour rights, there is no written document stating the rights of street children, and for good reason.
We are the ones who call these children street children, while they call themselves Laila or Ahmed. We must ask ourselves why we deny Ahmed and Laila the right to be children first, why for us it isn’t enough to simply advocate for children’s rights. There are endless amounts of abused children living in homes and invisible to our eyes and we do not want them to become street children.
If we manage to successfully advocate for children’s rights there will be no need to advocate the rights of street children. There will simply be no more street children.