UNICEF has launched a psychosocial support program for children who were affected by violence during the uprising in Egypt in recent weeks. Report by Hala Abu Khatwa.
Following days of peaceful mass protests that started on 25 January, demonstrations turned violent when clashes broke out among demonstrators, police forces and counter-demonstrators. The last group reportedly included hired thugs.
In addition, the withdrawal of the police from the streets and the escape of thousands of prisoners led to incidents of looting and increased fear among families. As a result, people of all ages, including children, went out on the streets and formed citizen groups to protect their neighbourhoods until the armed forces could restore security.
Caught in the clashes
According to preliminary figures announced by the Ministry of Health and by human rights organizations, 365 people – including 13 children, reportedly – were killed during the events in different governorates, and thousands of people were injured.
“All reported deaths and injuries, particularly of children, as well as reports of children being paid to participate in counter-demonstrations, and of children being detained, should be thoroughly investigated, and children’s rights fully protected,” said UNICEF Representative in Egypt Philippe Duamelle.
Help for children at risk
The psychosocial program that UNICEF and its national partners have put in place will help children at risk in Cairo and Alexandria, as well as schoolchildren nationwide, to overcome their psychological distress.
Social workers and teachers are being trained to identify signs of trauma and stress, provide psychological support and refer cases to specialized services when needed. The training will also be offered via video conferencing to reach teachers across the country. Psychologists will provide special on-the -job coaching to teachers and social workers in the areas that were most affected.
According to Dr Hashem Bahary, professor of psychology at Al-Azhar University, up to 30 per cent of Egyptian children may suffer from anxiety, depression and obsessive compulsion.
“In this psychosocial program, we are preparing the teacher, the psychologist and the social worker to communicate actively with the children,” said Dr. Bahary. “This communication is based on listening and arts in order to give children a chance to express themselves accurately, and this of course will reduce their anxiety.”
Impact in the streets
The most seriously affected young people are the tens of thousands of children who live and work on the streets of Cairo and other major cities. Testimony from children living in the streets indicates that they were exposed to severe violence, witnessing people killed and badly injured.
Maha (the names of the children in this report have been changed), 18, explains how her 16-year-old friend was shot: “We were in the middle of the crowd. She was shot in the back, so we took her to hospital and remained beside her ’til we felt she was getting better.”
Mohamed, 15, said he went to the protests to join the crowd. “People were throwing tear [gas] bombs at us and firing rubber bullets,” he recalled. “I was hit by a rubber bullet in my hand. It was painful and I went to the doctor to remove it.”
The UNICEF psychosocial support program will help children like Maha and Mohamed overcome the effects of these experiences and face the future with more confidence.