"What was it, I kept wondering, that bought this bright eyed, happy, 13 year old to a shelter with ten other teenage girls who had babies of their own and bore scars on their cheeks and souls to mark the pain." Nelly Ali tells a story about sexual abuse of a young girl and the ensuing bureaucratic and structural violence, but also a "happy" ending.
“A faraway place… where there are no people, only the sea and trees. Where people live very far away, because people are bad and they hurt each other and those who are good aren’t able and don’t know how to do anything about the bad people and they can’t help me”. This was Amal’s description when we asked the children at the shelter to draw a picture of what the best place they could think of (her picture is above).
She stood out from the rest, she always did. The rosy cheeks, the constant smile and laughter and the energy and care she displayed at every moment. Over the last few months I often wondered what it was that brought Amal to this three floor shelter that was filled with stories of abuse, neglect and vulnerability; this shelter that worked so hard not just to clothe and keep the children, but to heal emotional wounds that no one but the girls themselves knew the depth of. What was it, I kept wondering, that bought this bright eyed, happy, 13 year old to a shelter with ten other teenage girls who had babies of their own and bore scars on their cheeks and souls to mark the pain. What were her explorative, fun filled eyes doing among the other girls whose eyes made you guilty, sympathetic and scared all at the same time.
It was a few months and 15 group therapy sessions later that I found out why Amal was at the shelter. She had been raped for the last 4 years by her stepfather. Yes, reader, that was a full stop after that sentence. It’s a full stop because how can I cage the horror of that event in the form of words I type and you read?! For four years Amal had been subjected to the daily sexual assault of a father figure. Not until Amal’s mother walked into the house unexpectedly – to the shrieking sound of the 9 year old screaming, her husband grunting, raping her young daughter – did the sexual abuse come to an end.
Amal’s trauma was yet to continue in the form of bureaucratic and structural violence.
“Amal’s story, though not extraordinary in comparison to the experiences of others at the shelter, moved me deeply because of the childlike magic that she displayed in her actions and then the darker narrative that came when she spoke about herself”
The incredibly brave mother gave up the little security she had in the form of a home and husband and having no shelter to turn to, left to the streets with Amal and her 4 sisters. The sisters got separated in different shelters catering for different ages, while the mother searched for a hospital who would issue a report saying Amal was no longer a virgin due to rape, so she could be admitted to a shelter. Having been subjected to two virginity checks at their local hospital where her stepfather worked, he was able to bribe the administration to change the report. Amal’s mother did not give up and took her daughter to a different town and after the third virginity check, Amal was admitted to Hope Village for Young Street Mothers (a shelter that homes non virgin girls – and yes, this split is necessary in a culture where a woman’s value is hinged on a thin membrane between her legs).
Each of the girls was now at a different shelter and their mother had nowhere to turn to but the streets, highlighting another gap in services that vulnerable women in Egypt must face.
Sometimes I’d sit in group therapy with the girls and Amal would say the thing she suffers most from was guilt towards her mother and her sisters, she felt guilt that she used to think her mother did not love her till she saw her sleep under bridges and street lamps and her sisters separated, all so that she could protect her. I did not know at the time what she was referring to, maybe I took seriously the child’s rights to privacy, or maybe I was scared to ask. The shelter psychologist later told me that Amal was so fixated on this guilt it had been impossible to go past it to speak about her actual abuse.
Amal’s story, though not extraordinary in comparison to the experiences of others at the shelter, moved me deeply because of the childlike magic that she displayed in her actions and then the darker narrative that came when she spoke about herself. At the shelter we tried alternatives to get the family together, including speaking to her biological father. These efforts were soon trumped when we realised the drug dealer had abused his daughter himself when she had spoken to him previously about her stepfather, saying “I am more worthy of her than a stranger!” So I started to campaign. I wasn’t sure what I was campaigning for or how it would help, but I wanted everyone to know that women like Amal’s mother had no assistance and no help and that Amal’s legal case was shelved because as the officers said “the country is in a crisis and everyone’s being raped.” I wanted everyone to know that we needed alternatives.
After a few weeks and hundreds of tweets, I received an email from a man who wanted to donate daily food to the shelters. He wrote in his email that he wanted to do more than give money and wanted to get involved in a way that would alleviate the struggle. I wrote asking if he could somehow bring this family back together again and get Amal’s mother a job. I recently got a call to say the family are now living together, Amal, her sisters and mum all in one home – a dream that Amal had. A dream I had after Amal shared her feelings that people were unable to help her.
I wanted to tell you this story for a few reasons, the first is to share one of the few joys and “happy” endings that we get to experience working with the resilient children we cross paths with, to show you real life examples of how we can skip bureaucracy and work as a community to deal with each other. However, more importantly I am writing this to remind us all that this is not enough. We cannot continue working with a “save one child at a time” mentality. We have a government and social welfare ministries and NGOs who’s responsibility it is to provide safety and care and alternatives to society’s most vulnerable, and we have a responsibility to push and campaign and remind and rebel and make noise till each takes their responsibility on board and delivers what they have been set up to do and to serve the people they have all taken an oath to serve.
In the meantime of course, let’s continue saving one child at a time.