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Street children, also known as awlad al-shaware’ in Egyptian Arabic, are generally defined as young boys and girls who live on the streets and have minimal to no contact with their parents or guardians; they depend on the street for their shelter, income, and sustenance.
Since the revolution and with the majority of attention focused on Egypt’s political dynamics, there has been almost no attentiveness towards this marginalized community. As Egypt prepares to adapt a new constitution (the status of which will be determined after a second round of voting on December 22) there remains an alarming absence of necessary discussion on issues of human rights, more specifically the rights of the child, the working rights of minors, and various protections for trafficking. As such the issue of awlad al-shaware’ becomes one that must promptly be revisited.
It is estimated that there are now over 2 million street children in Egypt. The majority of street children in Egypt are young; a 2011 study conducted by the National Center for Social and Criminological Research (NSCR) found 68 percent of street children to be in the 6-11 age bracket. While children are commonly forgotten members of society in light of their inability to demand their rights, there is no doubt that every nation maintains a responsibility towards its minors. As a state party to the Convention of the Rights of the Child (CRC), Egypt has legally committed itself to protecting and ensuring the rights of all children alike. The CRC, which consists of 54 articles, came into force in September 1990 to highlight four major principles: non-discrimination; devotion to the best interests of the child; the right of the child to life, survival, and development; and respect for the views of the child.
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While there are a number of initiatives and NGOs (like Hope Village) that do phenomenal work on the issue of street children by providing them with shelter and educational opportunities as well as challenging the stigma that exists among this often-shunned population in Egyptian society, Egypt has the primary duty, as a nation state, to tackle this issue and address its nuances.
On the most basic and general level, Article 6 of the CRC guarantees the inherent right of the child to life as well as the right to survival and development. In addition to establishing a duty for the state to protect the child from mental and physical violence while under the care of the parent and the guardian in Article 19, the CRC also specifically addresses the situation under which many Egyptian street children find themselves. Article 20 calls upon states to ensure alternative care and provide special protection for children who are temporarily or permanently outside of the care of their parents and guardian.
Egypt’s street children are often homeless, fleeing from homes with abusive parents and stepparents; ultimately however, they find themselves in equally oppressive environments. They are unable to find security in the streets and commonly sleep under bridges, near river banks, and in deserted buildings, all of which directly threaten their survival and bring them mental, physical, and emotional anguish. Awlad al-shaware’ are often co-opted by older children and/or local thugs and forced to participate in gangs, criminal behavior, and prostitution rings (all of which directly contradict Articles 32, 34, and 35 of the CRC on the duty of the state to protect its children from economic and sexual exploitation, as well as trafficking). The 2011 NSCR study found 73 percent of street children to be involved in selling trivial items on the street and 60 percent to be involved in begging. The children are also often arbitrarily rounded up by police who have monthly quotas of children to arrest.
In addition to the lack of security that haunts Egypt’s street children on a daily basis, they also largely do not have access to basic health services (which is highly problematic for young girls who are often raped and impregnated, commonly giving birth on the streets) and a primary education (one of the key ways to improve social mobility and challenge embedded stigmas). Although the CRC calls upon its signatories to guarantee fundamental services like the aforementioned, street children have difficulty seeking admission into hospitals (many of them are not legally registered or recognized) and often have little to no incentive to attend school (almost 40% of those interviewed had not commenced a formal education at the time of the survey).
Ali’s anecdotes further confirm the horror that these children witness almost regularly; whether it is the culture of “marking” a girl with vertical scars across her face to indicate that she has been raped and is no longer a virgin, how young teenagers contend with unwanted pregnancies and the unforgiving reactions of their families, and how lice infestation is likely to be the easiest of the challenges they are met with.
Starting in 2003, the government took slow but tangible steps to address the rising numbers of street children through efforts like the National Strategy for the Protection, Rehabilitation, and Reuniting of Street Children. In 2008, the child law was amended to allow mothers to register their children without the presence of a father; despite this legal victory, most advocates note that the process remains logistically and bureaucratically difficult and many children remain undocumented.
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Ultimately, Egypt has both a moral and legal duty and opportunity under the CRC to guarantee the rights of awlad al-shaware’. While Egypt’s civil society has often stepped in to protect street children, the responsibility of the state is a separate and independent one that should be fulfilled through constant monitoring and reporting efforts, the establishment of new and creative initiatives that overcome embedded bureaucracies, and a unified national strategy to uplift the status of street children through legislation and direct action. With all eyes on Egypt, the international community and the local media and civil society would do well to raise pressure on the government to renew their commitment to the CRC and to remember those who have long been forgotten.