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Egypt's unrest leaves children scarred by stress

Advocates say the turmoil in Egypt has made a bad situation worse for a generation of children.

Advocacy groups are concerned that, after the political upheaval and violence in Eygpt, the physical and emotional scars on children could have devastating effects. Above, a boy sits on the tracks of a tank in Cairo.
Advocacy groups are concerned that, after the political upheaval and violence in Eygpt, the physical and emotional scars on children could have devastating effects. Above, a boy sits on the tracks of a tank in Cairo.

CAIRO // Advocacy groups that work with children in Egypt are concerned that, in the wake of Egypt's revolution, young people are suffering a range of problems from trauma to anxiety about the future, and gaps in their education.

They warn that, because of the huge youth population, the long-term effects of any unchecked problems could be devastating - not just to the children but to the country's future.

"The uprising has had a major impact on children," said Philippe Duamelle, the head of Unicef, the UN's children's fund, in Egypt. "Children have died or been injured, some witnessed violent clashes and others have been affected by insecurity in their homes and neighbourhoods."

Several weeks of closed schools, which re-opened on February 19, caused chunks of the curriculum to be missed. This comes in the wake of a report by Unesco, the UN's education, science and cultural programme, which said countries including Iraq and Yemen would miss the education-for-all Millennium Development Goal by 2015, due to insecurity and conflict.

Organisations say Egypt's street children, estimated to number at least 50,000, are among the worst affected. Driven from their homes due to poverty, divorce or domestic violence, the majority live in urban areas and were most vulnerable to witnessing violence.

Hassan, 12, has been living on Cairo's streets for as long as he can remember. He said he had seen three friends injured during the two days of clashes between protesters and government thugs on January 27 and 28. "I was scared after that," he said.

Children were not just bystanders: agencies have received reports of young people who took part in the violence. Unicef staff, currently assessing the uprising's impact, have been told by children that they were offered 50 Egyptian pounds (Dh31) by government agents to participate in pro-government protests. Others - from all social backgrounds - joined groups on the street to protect houses from looting.

Many street children also struggled with a lack of money and food when the markets, shops and restaurants, where they had casual employment, closed.

Despite the relative calm that has settled on the country, problems remain. "The situation is still challenging because the new Egypt is not as secure," said Geof Giacomini, the director of Save the Children in Egypt. "The government is in flux so it is hard to have discussions about implementing plans."

Children have been showing signs of stress, including drawing pictures of tanks and guns, said Mr Giacomini.

Unicef is training social workers and teachers to counsel pupils showing signs of distress. Some 130 social workers will start work in schools in Cairo and Alexandria, which witnessed the greatest amounts of violence in the run-up to the former president Hosni Mubarak's resignation on February 11.

It is unclear whether school terms will be extended to make up for missed time.

The effects of the uprising compound intransigent problems for Egypt's young people. Around 62 per cent of Egyptians are 29 or younger, according to Unicef, which poses challenges for society and organisations to help support them all.

Chronic issues include poverty, child labour, a lack of employment and a poor education system. Almost seven million children live below the poverty line in Egypt, according to a 2010 study by Cairo University and Unicef - one of the main reasons for the huge number of homeless children. Many lack identification papers, denying them access to education and health care.

Poverty causes parents to send their children out to work, entrenching the cycle of poverty and illiteracy. "At least 2.7 million children out of 11 million work," said Mr Duamelle. "This is particularly in Upper Egypt which has the highest poverty rates in the nation." Illiteracy among girls and women is also notably high in the area.

All these factors not only threaten the children's future, but also that of the country. A lack of an educated, economically active population leads to a lower standard of living and social problems, such as crime, according to experts.

But while the revolution trauma poses a challenge, there are reasons to remain positive.

"Children can be resilient," said Sawsan el Sherif, a researcher who specialises in education and mental health at the American University in Cairo. "Many of the street children have witnessed bad things before. And many were treated kindly during the chaotic days."

The revolution may also have had a positive effect in the long term. Teachers say some children are participating more in class and have a better view of their outlook.

"I have talked to some many children who now have a great sense of activism," Mr Giacomini said. "They now understand they have a voice and a choice - not only in a political sense, but over their own lives. That is very positive."



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