Society’s permissive attitude to domestic abuse is also a contributing factor to a child’s decision to run away. There are laws to deal with abusive parents, and hotlines to report them. But in a culture where many feel parents should have the right to deal with their children how they like, legislation isn’t always followed. “A man could beat his son to death in front of a police officer in the street,” explains Shaimaa, an in-house psychologist at Hope. “But nobody would intervene because it was his son.”
As a result, the street may literally become the only avenue left to abused children. And once there they become fair game for adults other than their parents.
It is 9.30pm and long past dark. Shaimaa, the psychologist, is in northeast Cairo, walking the streets of an upmarket suburb. Wealthy locals sip coffee at tables lining the pavements, or queue to buy ice cream from one of the city’s fanciest parlours.
But Shaimaa is not here to meet them. As she often is, Shaimaa is searching for a missing teenager. Sarah was abused by her parents, became a prostitute, and ended up sold by her pimp to men from the Gulf who kept her in a flat in Cairo. Somehow she escaped, and later started turning up at a drop-in centre, where Shaimaa first met her. But now Sarah has disappeared again, and Shaimaa wants to find her. Some of the other street girls said she might be here in Korba.
It is often dangerous work, doing what Shaimaa does. Founded in 1988 by an expat Brit, Richard Hemsley, Hope Village now runs several day-centres and long-term shelters that aim to gradually rehabilitate street children back into mainstream society. Many of the girls Shaimaa coaxes into the shelters can’t stand the imposition of a routine – so, like Sarah, they sometimes disappear. One of Shaimaa’s jobs is to find them.
But finding them is tough. Coaxing a girl back to the shelter might disrupt a prostitution ring. In any given area, Shaimaa needs the blessing of the local street leader – otherwise she might get attacked. “If I’m going out to get a girl that I know is being used by a group of men, then I’m a target,” Shaimaa says. “I’m taking a source of income from them.”
Sometimes the attackers come to the shelters themselves. At one drop-in centre, four men once entered with machetes and said if a certain girl wasn’t returned to them, they’d cut everyone’s heads off.
And, occasionally, the threat comes from the girls themselves. In a fit of self-loathing, one teenager staying at a shelter stormed out of a group meeting, took out a blade and began to cut herself, slashing Shaimaa when she came near. As a matter of course, Shaimaa and her colleagues at Hope Village have bi-annual check-ups and immunisations against various diseases. Some of the girls they work with are HIV positive, or suffer from hepatitis C.
In such a thankless job, many of those who work at Hope Village have particular memories that keep them motivated. For Shaimaa, it is the image of one of her first patients: a nine-year-old who came to a drop-in centre after being gang-raped on the street.
“All these years later, that girl is still what keeps me going,” says Shaimaa, who thought the job wasn’t for her until she saw the nine-year-old playing at the centre. “I can’t forget her sitting so innocently on the swing as she was still bleeding from the rape.”