CAIRO (Reuters) - Nora, a mother at just 14, jingled keys above her infant daughter’s head, drawing smiles from the baby she conceived while living on the streets of Cairo.
She was one of hundreds of thousands of children who the United Nations says may be living on Egypt’s streets, including a growing number of girls arriving as young as four or five years old fleeing poverty, abuse or broken homes.
While baby Shaimaa played with slippers at Nora’s feet, the young mother described how she traded beatings by her brothers at the age of six or seven for a life of early forced sexuality on streets where she became pregnant soon after puberty.
“The guys don’t differentiate. They don’t care if you are big or small. I got snatched,” Nora said, using a word that in the parlance of Egypt’s street girls means being taken by men and raped.
Coupled with the lure of a city of fancy cars and luxury shops, economic hardship that has left one-fifth of Egyptians in absolute poverty has driven many like her out of their homes, as traditional family structures are strained.
In Egypt’s socially conservative Muslim community, a life on the street can do lasting damage to young girls.
“Sexual abuse is ABC in the phenomenon. Not only for street girls but for the boys also,” said Seham Ibrahim, whose Tofoulty organization runs a shelter for street girls.
Nora lives in one such shelter with Shaimaa, her baby’s ears pierced with tiny gold studs. But not all girls manage to find a safe way out.
Two leaders of a children’s gang were sentenced to death in May for raping and killing at least three and possibly up to 26 street children in Cairo and northern Egypt.
In a separate case last month, Egyptian police arrested a man accused of imprisoning six youths, sexually assaulting them and forcing them to beg in the streets.
Cairo’s street girls -- often children of Egypt’s rural poor or from urban shanty towns -- may sleep on the pavement or in public gardens, face a constant threat of rape, and sniff glue to dull the pain and numb the cold.
Some beg or sell packets of tissues, weaving between cars at intersections. Ilham, a quiet 11-year old, said she had spent a week sleeping outside a police station, getting food handouts from officers after her parents split up and an aunt burned her with hot metal.
A few turn to prostitution.
“The sexuality of their existence on the streets starts very early on, when they are raped. So naturally when she is with someone they do have a sexual relationship,” said Alia Mossallam, who works in child protection at UNICEF.
Nora said at one point as a young girl, she had an unofficial “marriage” to a street guy: “He had a room, and I didn’t want to be on the street.”
People who work with Cairo street children say they began to see girls living on the streets in the mid-1990s who would cut their hair to pass as boys and stay safe.
Their number has since swollen and Mossallam said an estimated 20 to 30 percent of street children are now girls. They are largely scorned in Egypt, where girls are expected to be virgins at marriage and rape victims may be seen as tainted.
For Magda, a chatty 11-year-old with a chipped front tooth and a ponytail who wants to learn karate, it was her parents’ separation -- followed by beatings by her grandmother -- that led her to the streets more than three years ago.
“It was easy. I slept on the pavement at night, normally,” she said as she sipped a juice box. “There were things we were afraid of. We were afraid of boys coming at night.”
She managed to leave the streets fairly quickly, finding her way to a shelter where she attends school and plans for the future. She hopes to go to university.
Another girl, Amani, facing beatings over her school performance, ran away from home with a friend in the port of Alexandria, but her friend left when she ran out of money.
“A guy came and attacked me and left me not a girl,” the 15-year old said. She later discovered she was pregnant and, although she lost the baby, she still fears going home.
A 2006 government survey showed roughly half of street girls had had sex and about 45 percent of those had been raped. People involved with the girls say the real numbers may be much higher.
Often, they say, rape is one of the very first experiences a girl has once she arrives on the street. Once that happens, as it did to Yasmine, it becomes very difficult to go home.
“I was snatched. They kept me for four days,” said Yasmine, now 20. “There were eight of them. They put dogs around us so we couldn’t escape. When they had new girls coming they let us go,” she said, her fingers twirling the ends of her pink headscarf.
She said she tried to return to a children’s home after the rape, but although she had stayed there previously they would not admit her. Years later, she is pregnant with a baby boy she says was fathered by a man in jail for theft.
Tofoulty’s Ibrahim said experienced girls often take birth control pills, which are easily accessible at Egyptian pharmacies -- and many do not carry their babies to term.
They miscarry either intentionally or because of the toll of street life, Mossallam said: “They do glue and ... some normal types of medicine that could result in hallucinations in large dosages. They have names for them. One is called Sarasir (cockroaches) because when they have it they imagine they have cockroaches all over them.”
Pregnant girls can get help giving birth if they go to a shelter. Otherwise, conditions are grim.
“They get pregnant and deliver in the street. It’s very unclean and very uncivilized,” said Tarek Ali, an administrator at Hope Village Society, which runs a street mothers’ shelter.
Many of the young mothers cannot secure birth certificates for their children because the babies’ fathers are unknown or deny paternity. With babies in arms, they find it nearly impossible to re-integrate in society.
“People always look at us with a look of hatred. I want to tell people to change their ideas about us,” said Yasmine, patting her pregnant belly in the shelter where she is staying.
Editing by Sara Ledwith