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Displaced girls trying to cope on the streets

[Sudan] Hara Mubarak, a 16-year old girl living in Ombara, Sudan. [Date picture taken: 11/01/2005]
Hara Mubarak, a 16-year old girl living in Ombara, Sudan (Shannon Egan/IRIN)

On the streets of Ombara, a camp for internally displaced persons 10 km from the Sudanese capital Khartoum, 16-year-old Hara Mubarak sells flavoured ice for 10 Sudanese dinars (US $0.04) to pay for her education.

"I eat only one small meal a day, and I have only one pair of clothes to wear," explained Mubarak, whose mother was too ill to work and whose father spent long hours selling fruit.

Mubarak and her family moved from the town of Kassala to Ombara in search of better opportunities in eastern Sudan. They hoped to make enough money to afford a house, but since their arrival they had spent their nights with relatives or on the streets.

"We have no electricity. So I have to pay a man half of what I make every day to use his freezer," Mubarak observed.

During the day, Mubarak comes to the Child Friendly Centre (CFC) in Ombara. The centre was set up by an NGO, the Khartoum Council for Child Welfare (KCCW), to provide schooling, health services and counselling for the thousands of children who after fleeing civil war and famine were struggling to survive on the streets of the capital.

Recent data for these children is not readily available. A study entitled Children of the Sug (meaning "market" in Arabic), which was conducted by Save the Children Alliance, Oxfam UK, UN Children's Fund (UNICEF), KCCW and the Sudanese authorities in 2001, indicated that 4,000 of the 34,000 children on the streets of Khartoum and surrounding areas were young girls, most under the age of 18.

"For a long time, the presence of the street girls was not known, because compared to the number of street boys there are so few and because the girls are careful to keep themselves hidden," said Nagwan Hamid Shamseldin, secretary-general of KCCW.

The study also reported that the main reason the girls were working on the streets was to help their families. Sixty-six percent indicated they were working to pay for school fees and 63 percent to buy food.

Thirty percent said they were in Khartoum because of conflict in their regions of origin.

Shamseldin noted that because most of the children coming to the 19 CFCs throughout Sudan were girls: "The centres are more attractive for the girls because they like to do handicrafts and because the girls are more vulnerable to the dangerous conditions on the streets. They need protection and the centres can provide them with that for a few hours each day."

"In working throughout the years with Save the Children and other organisations, it is becoming clear that the number of girls on the street as well as those participating in the trade of sex for money is increasing greatly ... It is something that needs to be reviewed and assessed now," said Gaysar El Zein, professor of urban sociology at Khartoum University.

According to an analysis of children's rights published by Save the Children-Sweden in 2005, 700 babies were abandoned in Khartoum and surrounding areas in the year 2000 and the first half of 2001.

The number of girls living on the streets was going up while the number of babies being born and abandoned was also increasing, Shamseldin observed.

Commercial sex work

"The street girls have fewer options for work than boys. The only thing they can really offer in exchange for their basic needs is their body. In the beginning they may not be keen to participate, but they quickly learn that they have no other option," Zein said.

However, he added, if the street girls got pregnant they could not afford to keep their babies. They also feared legal repercussions, as it is illegal under Islamic sharia law, which was adopted by Sudan in 1983, to give birth outside marriage.

The Children of the Sug study found that 80 percent of girls living on the streets supplemented their income through commercial sex work, while 20 percent sold cigarettes, fruits and sweets.

The analysis further indicated that 75 percent of the girls had experienced sexual abuse while living or working on the streets and that almost all of them were sexually active. Being sexually exploited by street boys and other men was one of their biggest fears.

Mubarak said that street boys had harassed her on several occasions.

"Sometimes the boys will bully you. Maybe they will try to do bad things with you. You have to be careful of those ones," she said.

Zein noted that to protect themselves, many of the girls would make a deal with a street boy to exchange sex for food and protection.


The government's response to the problem has been to round them up in what is known as kasha, a monthly campaign to rid Khartoum of people living or working on the streets.

The children are taken off the streets and placed in one of three institutions in the city, where they spend some time participating in programmes to reform their attitudes before they are let free.

Unlike the government, KCCW attempts to reintegrate the children with their families and to set up income-generating programmes for the families in order to avoid the children having to work.

"We have noticed a big change in the children who have attended counselling and participated in activities at our centres because they begin to reach out and help other children," Shamseldin noted.

Mubarak, who said she has never engaged in commercial sexual activity, said the money she makes selling flavoured ice was not enough. "I want food, clothes and to go to school but these living conditions are just too difficult," she noted.

This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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