[an error occurred while processing this directive]
BBC News
watch One-Minute World News
Last Updated: Thursday, 1 June 2006, 11:04 GMT 12:04 UK
Egypt street mothers find refuge
By Alasdair Soussi

Hadir and her baby (photo: courtesy of Unicef)
For girls like Hadir there are few helping hands in Cairo
Cradling her baby, Ahmed, in her arms, Hadir looks at ease with the world.

But her joy masks a very different kind of reality.

Only a few months ago, 16-year-old Hadir, on the run from problems with her family, was preparing to give birth on the crowded and unforgiving streets of Cairo.

Alone, scared and vulnerable, she was at the mercy of a world filled with violence, drugs and sexual abuse.

Just as all seemed lost, Hadir found sanctuary in a new rehabilitation centre for street mothers, operated by Hope Village Society, a group dedicated to the care and welfare of some of Egypt's most vulnerable children.

Several months later, her baby was safely delivered.

"I don't know what I would have done if there hadn't been this centre," she says. "The staff were so helpful before and during my delivery."

Health problems

Sadly, Hadir's story is a familiar one.

Cairo panorama, with the Giza Pyramids on the horizon
Cairo is an ancient and teeming city of 16m people
Estimates show that poverty and family break-up mean anywhere between 200,000 and a million Egyptian youngsters have to fend for themselves on the streets of the country's major cities.

Their numbers are thought to be rising fast. Society tends to take an uncharitable view of these vulnerable youngsters.

Many Egyptians regard street children as a nuisance, or at worst as petty criminals fully meriting the harsh treatment to which they are often subjected.

Their health problems are often severe, ranging from cholera to tuberculosis and anaemia.

Studies show they are exposed to a variety of toxic substances, both in their food and in the environment around them.

They are also at risk of various kinds of abuse.

In one survey, 86% of street children questioned identified violence as a major problem in their life, while 50% stated that they had been exposed to sexual molestation.

Parallel world

Child vagrants with their donkey in Cairo
Up to one million children fend for themselves on the streets of major cities
In addition to operating the street mothers' centre, Hope Village runs a number of drop-in centres across Cairo, where children can come for medical attention, showers and food, before returning to the streets to sleep.

Four long-stay shelters in the city offer children a more permanent home.

Street children live in a separate world, one with its own set of rules.

Many mingle with the public quite unobtrusively, wandering aimlessly across the capital's chaotic, sun-beaten highways, and through the countless dirt-covered lanes and alleyways, as they search for food and, perhaps, a safer place to rest their heads as night approaches.

They may wash cars, sell tissue boxes or beg for money. Others lie where they had fallen the night before.

Fresh start

Asleep under a bridge, in a doorway or on a grass verge in the centre of Cairo itself, their slumber is often drug-induced - glue, solvents and cannabis being the substances most used.

Here, in Egypt's capital, a sprawling mass of some 16m human beings, people do not stop and stare.

Street children are not a surprising phenomenon. They are a part of Cairo, a part of Egypt, a part of life.

For girls like Hadir, however, there is a chance for a fresh start. Set up with funding raised by Unicef Germany goodwill ambassador Ann-Kathrin Linsenhoff, the street mothers' centre is the first of its kind in Egypt.

Its aim is to provide young mothers and their babies with the secure surroundings they need in which to put their fractured lives back together.

Medical care, provided by a resident nurse and various visiting doctors, is an essential part of the centre.

So too, is the help given to young mothers to work out problems with the authorities.


Obtaining birth certificates for their children is one such task, though this is complicated by the fact that the child's father is usually absent.

The young women are expected to leave the centre by the time they reach the age of 21.

By then, having attended literacy and child-rearing classes, and some vocational training sessions, they will hopefully be able to face the future with confidence.

Everything is geared towards making the young mothers self-reliant and responsible, the group says.

"A vital part of the project consists of helping the girls reintegrate into mainstream society by finding them jobs, housing, reuniting them with their families, or helping them set up a small income-generating project," says Unicef protection officer Nadra Zaki.

"While they're here, the girls can learn new skills like hairdressing, carpet weaving and candle making.

"The idea is that when they leave they can earn an income, and support their children, and avoid ever having to go back onto the street."

Country profile: Egypt
23 Mar 06 |  Country profiles

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific