Breathing space: Working girls in Egypt find relief in UNICEF-supported drop-in centres
Cairo, EGYPT – 10 June 2007 -- Twelve-year-old Menna leads a busy life. Like most other children, she wakes up in the morning on time to go to school and returns home by lunch time.
What sets Menna apart from most other children her age is that she heads each day to a milk shop where she toils away from 2:30pm until 8pm, making just over $14 a month to contribute to her family. “I get tired sometimes,” she says.
Worse still is the case of Shaima, aged 13, who also lives in the overcrowded, poorly serviced Cairo district of West Helwan. “I don’t know how to read or write,” Shaima says, adding that she makes just $18 a month. “I suppose my family didn’t have the money to send me to school. I work from 7am till the evening every day except Fridays at a small garments factory. I sew sleeves onto shirts, sweep and clean. My employer treats me well, but my back hurts from sitting at the machine.”
The two girls are hardly alone. While estimates vary widely it's believed here are hundreds of thousands of children in Egypt supplementing their families' income through part-time jobs.
“I feel sad I have to send my daughter to work, but how else will we survive? As a divorcée, I simply wouldn’t have enough money to feed my daughters. They must help me run our finances,” said Menna’s mother. “I am glad for the time she gets off though, where she learns and entertains with other children at the NGO; she has opportunities to make good use of it.”
Both girls regularly attend the Red Crescent centre of West Helwan, which opens its doors for working girls every Friday, the day off for most of the working girls. At the UNICEF-supported centre, the girls take part in numerous recreational activities including singing, art and sport, added to other life skills activities. Numerous preventive measures are in place to help make sure working girls who attend school do not drop out, whatever the pressure.
“Our social workers visit the girls’ homes, and we try to raise awareness among parents,” said Red Crescent Programme Director Nadia Kamel. “We try and instil the feeling in parents that they should not impose on their daughters what they would not have wanted for themselves. To date, we have had a 50 percent success rate with this.”
In the case of girls like Shaima, who have dropped out of school, the centre runs a literacy programme. “We also provide awareness raising sessions for the girls themselves, discussing issues of cultural, health, environmental, hygiene and interpersonal nature,” said Kamel. “Communication between the girls and their parents has vastly improved, rendering the home environment more protective, and the girls themselves become empowered and acquiring skills they can use later to find dignified work.”
Kamel explains that the NGOs social workers regularly visit the girls’ workplaces and build relations with employers, to raise their awareness on children rights and to help improve their working conditions.
Though the majority of working minors in Egypt are involved in agriculture, the greatest dangers are actually to be found in the cities, where machinery is involved and children are away from the protection of their parents or guardians.
UNICEF Egypt's aim is to improve the condition of child labourers in the cities, with the main focus in Cairo and Alexandria. Four centres in the country’s two main cities are supported, which open their doors weekly to working children. UNICEF has been supporting the centres since 1997, with support from the German National Committee for UNICEF and from others.
Said UNICEF Child Protection Officer Nivine El-Kabbag: “We provide them with the services they need to improve their living and working conditions, make sure they stay in education and receive medical care, and protect them against abuse and exploitation. Besides the protective measures, we focus also on the prevention side because it is always easier to prevent a child from joining the labour market than to pull him out after he works. We identify families at risk, study their cases and refer them to suitable service providers that respond to their needs and protect the child from the risk he/she is facing. UNICEF’s objective is to make a positive difference in the life of child and constantly achieve their best interest.