“I just want my daughter back,” said a sobbing mother as she laid her seven-year-old daughter’s clothes and books on her bed. “She was playing in the garden and then just disappeared.”
This mother’s experience is just one instance of child abduction or missing children that have been doing the rounds of the Internet over recent months.
Child abduction seems to be on the rise in Egypt, part of a larger spike in crime that has been evident over the past three years.
According to the National Council for Childhood and Motherhood (NCCM), from January to July 2014 of the 337 cases of violence against children reported in the period, 75 had to do with child abduction or trafficking. There were 32 such cases in August alone, with Cairo topping the league of child abductions followed by Giza and Alexandria.
“The periods after revolutions are often associated with an increase in crime rates,” explained professor of sociology and political science Said Sadek. “Because revolutions weaken the police apparatus and the security system, they can lead to lawlessness, especially in rural areas,” he added.
The motives for child abduction may be either demanding ransoms from rich parents or even organ trafficking. For Sadek, the only way to stamp out this form of crime is better security and firm action against the gangs involved. There should also be more surveillance of hospitals where new-borns may be reported missing and even the use of surveillance cameras in the streets of crowded areas.
Parents also need to take special care, Sadek said. “Never let a child go to school alone or walk in the streets alone. Parents should raise their children’s awareness of their personal safety and how to deal with strangers,” he added.
Meanwhile, the problem is on the rise and the police have not always been able to deal with it. “Kidnap threats made a friend of mine flee the country with his family and children,” explained one young mother on condition of anonymity. She herself had received similar threats, she said, and had filed complaints at the local police station.
The problem is complex because it is tangled up with organised crime such as child trafficking and begging. Such issues remain urgent despite the holding of an international conference in Egypt in 2010 on measures to fight child trafficking under the aegis of the United Nations Global Initiative to Fight Human Trafficking.
According to a 2012 UNICEF report on child trafficking, some 1.2 million children are being trafficked worldwide each year, and Egypt is one of the countries involved despite the passage of tough anti-trafficking laws that prescribe up to 20 years in prison for anyone found guilty of such offences.
Despite the efforts of non-governmental organisations and the NCCM, there are still tens of thousands of street children in Egypt, according to UNICEF estimates. Often found selling small items or simply begging, these children may be the victims of abduction, domestic violence or broken homes, causing them to take to the streets where they face the threat of further violence.
According to a World Health Organisation survey from 2000, 86 percent of street children face violence and 50 percent face sexual abuse. The establishment of the NCCM in 2004 was intended to help deal with such problems both by passing legislation and by setting up emergency help lines 16000.
The latter have helped reveal the scope of the problem, and statistics gathered from such reports are sent to a range of government bodies including the Ministry of Interior. Intervention is immediate in cases of child abduction, cutting down the 24-hour delay that can be the case when an adult person is reported missing since this reduces the risk of the child involved being spirited across the country’s borders.
There have also been individual initiatives to give hope to parents who have lost their children. Hamlet Moqawmet Khatf Al-Atfal or the “Campaign Against the Abduction of Children” is a Facebook site created by Ayat Gawdat, a writer, who has been trying to bring reports of abducted children together in one place. Gawdat monitors reports of child abductions and provides up-to-date news of police investigations. The site now has over 24,000 followers.
“I wanted to channel my own anger and fear, so I thought of unifying the data in one place,” Gawdat said, adding that one of her own relatives had faced abduction threats. “We were in a popular fast-food place with a children’s area, and the three-year old was approached by another child on the pretext of playing together. Luckily, we managed to stop this attempt before it started, but it seems clear that in some cases children are being used to abduct other children,” she said.
Gawdat believes that combating child abduction can only work if security is enforced. The police should intervene more aggressively in such cases, she added.
Technology can also help. Members of the public could photograph children found sleeping in the streets and post the photographs on line as a way of alerting parents, for example. They could also phone the NCCM child rescue line and report suspicious cases to the authorities. Meanwhile, Gawdat urges all parents to take particular care of their children and not to leave them unattended even in secure areas.
The problem of abductions is not only an issue for children. Many adults are also wary of possible kidnapping. Yalahwi or “I am in Trouble” is an android application designed by Said Ali and Ahmed Sarwat, two young programmers, that can be used to help trace missing people. “You download the application, and if you feel in danger you can click on the button at the bottom that will automatically send out an appeal to friends and family,” Ali said.
The application has another feature allowing schedules to be arranged in advance. “This is used mostly by girls if they are taking taxis over long distances. They can text us using the application if they are in trouble, and we can raise the alert on line,” he added. Some 10,000 people have now downloaded the free mobile application.
There are a number of ways in which you can ensure the safety of your child, recommended by the Campaign Against the Abduction of Children
-- Never leave your child alone under any circumstances.
-- Avoid shopping with your children because they can be abducted from shopping carts or in shops.
-- Try to go out in a group wherever possible.
-- Be aware that children can be used to abduct other children, so never let your child out of your sight even when he or she is playing with other kids.
-- Always lock your car and close the windows when riding with a child.
-- Don’t talk to strangers when escorting your child and warn him or her to do the same.
-- Be aware that child abductors may look respectable and be well-spoken.
-- Don’t trust others with your child: children can be abducted even from malls and clubs.
-- Establish a code with your child such that he or she can know that anyone using it has been sent by you.
-- Educate your child about personal safety.
-- Don’t be afraid to call the NCCM’s child helpline (16000) in case of doubt or in emergencies.
-- Never answer the door to strangers and be aware that there have been reports of children being abducted from their own homes in remote areas.