From Revolution to the Everyday: Reflections on childhood, youth and poverty in Egypt

You are here

From Revolution to the Everyday: Reflections on childhood, youth and poverty in Egypt

by Rania Kassab al-Sweis on Monday, March 28, 2011 - 3:42am

In the wake of its recent popular revolution, Egypt is at an unprecedented moment in its national history. A fervent desire for a better future, particularly for the nation’s children and youth, was a palpable decree of protesters throughout the events of January-March this year. This sentiment was expressed powerfully by a middle-aged Cairene father during the early days of Egypt’s demonstrations when asked why he was protesting: “My children! They have nothing…they have no future!”  This simple yet poignant phrase captures the fact that the uprisings were largely spearheaded not only by but also for Egypt’s young people.

In many ways, a strong focus on Egyptian generational politics is inescapable in light of the popular uprisings, which many analysts call a ‘youth revolution.’ Middle East and North African countries have some of the world’s largest young populations.  Nearly 60% of the region’s population now lies below the age of 30.  In Egypt alone, out of nearly 80 million people, approximately 40% live on less than two dollars a day and are considered formally ‘poor.’ In addition, the highest percentage of the unemployed are the young and college educated, with males even more likely to hold a college degree and be jobless.  And those lucky enough to secure a job are finding their occupations increasingly precarious and unstable, a result of the country’s aggressive trend towards privatization particularly since the 1990s.

International discussions about how to rebuild Egypt in the aftermath of these uprisings, along with development policy proposals, tend to foreground children and youth. What I found in my anthropological research, however, is the significance of raising more nuanced questions of gender and class alongside child and youth politics. My research looks at various transnational humanitarian organizations that focus on the care and governance of poor children and youth throughout Egypt. With a significant amount of foreign philanthropy directed toward helping, uplifting, and educating young people in Egypt each year, I wondered about the actual, tangible social effects of this philanthropy on the young people themselves. I sought to answer this question during two years of ethnographic fieldwork in Cairo’s urban poor areas and a nearby village.

Young boy and girl harvest farm crops in Egypt. Source: USAID.

My ethnographic research revealed that transnational NGOs and young Egyptians cite different priorities in developing the region, often talking past one another. This phenomenon is best explained by the following example from my dissertation.

In 2008, Egypt formally criminalized child marriage. This new “Child Law” set the legal marriage age from sixteen to eighteen, with eighteen marking the start of formal ‘adulthood.’ The institution of childhood, as feminist scholars assert, is culturally specific and contingent to local contexts and histories.  Experiences and notions of childhood vary not only by national context, but by social class, race and gender.  The criminalization of child marriage marked a significant shift in the legal politics of childhood in Egypt; in fact, the new law propelled a new definition of childhood to the public.  The global exportation came from western institutions like the International Convention on the Rights of the Child to Egypt’s legal and NGO realm. This process reflects what some feminist scholars call the modern exportation of childhood from the West to the Arab world through the implementation of children’s rights.

Organizations like the transnational Save the Children were instrumental in concretizing Egypt’s new Child Law and raising the marriage age.  The new marriage amendment seeks to improve the lives of young out-of-school village girls. Believing that these girls suffer from traditional practices like ‘confinement in the home’ and ‘child marriage,’ Save the Children and other NGOs describe them as the country’s most vulnerable subjects. But as the marriage age amendment was lauded by many foreign and local authority figures, local village authorities viewed it as a direct imposition of foreign values into the sacred domain of ‘the family.’

In my research with village girls aged 12-16 involved in a foreign-run NGO program, the girls’ casual discussions repeatedly revolved around their own aspirations and desire for marriage.  Far from complaining about the institution of early marriage, the girls complained about the economic hardships that led couples to delay marriage —many young couples in the village had recently postponed their marriage dates sometimes by years due to the financial burden of securing new households and wedding funds.  In other words, the village girls I interviewed were not averse to marriage but looked forward to securing a fiancé within the village in a timely manner.  They viewed marriage as the proper entryway into moral and ethical adulthood, and they worried about the possibility of its delay amidst a climate of structural inequality and poverty.  They directed their grievances not toward the prospect of a looming marriage but toward the debilitating economic conditions that affected their households on a daily basis.

The small village where I conducted my research is among the poorest areas of the country.  Many households struggle to meet daily food needs and medical expenses. With the virtual absence of state social welfare, most families cannot send every child to school.  Although Egypt’s public education is ‘free,’ the cost of books, clothes and other fees are beyond what most families in the village can afford. With income generation so low, and state services and healthcare virtually non-existent, parents must often choose which children to send to school, and many choose their boys hoping for a future investment. 

My ethnographic research showed an opportunity to rethink the separation of children’s rights and poverty alleviation. By expanding the definition of children’s human rights work to include rights to basic needs like food and education, NGOs can have a more sustainable impact in the region.

During my fieldwork, millions of US dollars flowed into NGO offices in Egypt, money specifically designated for projects targeting village girls and the eradication of ‘child marriage.’  If asked, the girls themselves would likely have preferred that the money be directed toward eradicating the poverty they experience on a daily basis, for example by providing new housing, education and medical funding, and food.

The conflicting priorities of NGOs and village girls highlight the complexities attached to transnational humanitarian assistance in Egypt. When we think about global interventions on behalf of children, we must also think about the local political and economic contexts in which they become engaged, and the specific struggles and aspirations of humanitarian subjects themselves.

Now more than ever, Middle East and North African children and youth remain the objects of global humanitarian sentiment, and Middle East-North African countries a robust hub for foreign aid, NGOs and human rights discourses and practices.  The need for more critical and grounded analyses of how these global processes are refashioning conceptualizations and experiences of childhood and youth throughout the region may be difficult to ignore in the coming years, especially as the world continues to center its gaze and wield an incredible amount of resources towards the protection, care and management of these young populations.

----------

Rania Kassab Sweis is a Ph.D. Candidate in Anthropology at Stanford University and Graduate Dissertation Fellow at Stanford’s Michelle R. Clayman Institute for Gender Research.  Her dissertation, titled Coming of Age in a Global Egypt: the Politics of Transnational Humanitarianism, Childhood and Youth, examines the ethics and practices of global philanthropy in Egypt’s neoliberal era.