CNEWA
ONE Magazine
God • World • Human Family • Church

Breaking the Silence

The church raises awareness about trafficking in Egypt

Amid the greenery of reclaimed desert lands, west of the Nile River, survivors of trafficking and abuse find respite and healing.

Martha, whose name was changed to protect her identity, is one of three young women who live at the Oasis Center for Counseling and Formation, situated in a remote area called Shousha about 21 miles northwest of Minya in Upper Egypt.

The center’s mission is to combat violence and sexual abuse against women and children, provide psychological support and specialized services to abuse and trafficking survivors, and accompany them in their healing and rehabilitation.

Martha, 20, moved into the center in September to begin her healing journey. A year earlier, she had left her family in rural Minya for Cairo to escape years of physical abuse. Responding to an online ad for an elderly sitter position, she arrived at the address provided for the recruitment office, only to find it was an apartment. Upon entering, a group of men forced her into a dark room, where she spent four days in captivity until police rescued her. While she is uncertain of the men’s motives, she suspects they were involved in human trafficking. When she returned to her family after this ordeal, the abuse only worsened.

“My parents think I hate them, and I think the same of them,” she says, choking on her words. “But I love them. I pray that God will remove the misunderstanding between us.”

She asked the local Catholic priest for counsel, and he directed her to the Oasis Center.

“I was received with a warm welcome,” says Martha. “The people here talk to me and try to help me as much as possible. Now I feel that something big has changed or started to heal.”

The center was an initiative of Bishop Kamal Fahim Awad Hanna, then bishop of the Coptic Catholic Eparchy of Minya. A priest of his eparchy, the Reverend Makarios Isaac, had started a successful rehabilitation center for child abuse survivors in Kenya 10 years prior, and he wanted something similar in his eparchy. Upon the bishop’s invitation, Father Isaac began the process of founding the Oasis Center in 2019.

The eparchy bought former farmland and received a grant to renovate and equip the main building. The ground floor has a lecture hall and offices. The second and third floors provide housing for the resident rehabilitation program, as well as rooms for conference participants. High privacy walls surround the property. A large iron gate opens onto expansive green space with two soccer fields, a small pond and other open areas for outdoor activities.

The center, which opened in January 2022, also maintains an office at the chancery in Minya where it operates an emergency hotline and referral service.

The center’s 18-member staff, including therapists, educators and social workers, abide by the professional ethic of confidentiality. Nonetheless, some beneficiaries prefer a referral to an external professional to ensure even greater confidentiality, fearful of the social stigma related to seeking assistance for abuse. The taboo regarding physical and sexual abuse in Egypt is a primary challenge for the center in carrying out its mission.

“People are not open to talking about the matter,” says Father Isaac, “and it is being covered up.” However, such abuse is so widespread that people can no longer remain silent about it, he said. “The community has reached a point where it is fed up.”

Father Makarios Isaac, founder and manager of the Oasis Center, and his team provide lunch for the center’s residents. (photo: Hanaa Habib)

Dr. Samy Farid Isaac, Father Isaac’s brother who volunteers at the center, says it is “difficult for rural families to allow their children who have been sexually abused” to come to the center and receive in-residence care.

“Because people in the countryside know each other, when someone is gone, they look for where he has gone,” adds the medical doctor, who worked for UNICEF and other international organizations concerned with child protection.

To work around the taboo and social stigma, Dr. Isaac and other center staff run parenting conferences in churches and elsewhere in the community, as well as awareness workshops for young people and children on the prevalence and prevention of abuse. 

Children victims of physical violence are the most common beneficiaries at the Oasis Center.

“In the countryside, physical violence against children is the norm,” says Dr. Isaac, addressing the deeply rooted belief in Egyptian culture that corporal punishment will make a child behave.

He recalls a presentation he gave at a Catholic school in Mansafis, a village south of Minya. When he asked parents, “Who among you does not beat their children?” no one raised their hand. When he asked, “Who among you beats their children?” everyone raised their hand.

He also shares the story of a 16-year-old girl, whose father tortured her. He would tie her up with ropes, burn her with a hot metal skewer and flog her. She is receiving psychological and physical care at the center to assist with her recovery.

According to the World Health Organization, an estimated 91 percent of Egyptian children are subjected to varied degrees of abuse. UNICEF reports this abuse can come in various forms, including “violence, exploitation, human trafficking and inadequate family care.” While federal law guarantees a child’s right to be safe from all forms of harm, no law mandates the reporting of child abuse or a penalty for failing to disclose it.

The Demographic and Health Survey Program highlights that Egyptian girls are more vulnerable to being abused, citing the custom of female genital mutilation (F.G.M.) and child marriage. The prevalence of F.G.M. has declined in recent years, from 74 percent of girls aged 15 to 19 in 2004 to 61 percent in 2014, according to the Egyptian Population Council. However, regional differences persist, with some rural regions recording higher rates of this practice.

The Oasis Center’s formation programs for children and teens seek to educate on abuse prevention and personal development. In October, 16 orphans of different ages visited the center for a two-day program.

Julie Ashraf, an Oasis Center team member, works on a craft with an abuse survivor. (photo: Hanaa Habib)

Through games and storytelling, the children were taught how to say no, refuse unwanted touch and cope with bullying. A puppet theater based on the biblical story of Peninnah tormenting Hannah for her infertility taught children about the importance of standing up to bullies. These activities also served as conversation starters, where the children were encouraged to express themselves while the adults listened.

Young people are also educated on self-image, emotional attachments, boundaries, self-acceptance, addiction and media use, and parents are taught about the psychological needs of children, positive parenting, the consequences of violence and harassment prevention.

After yet another awareness-raising conference, this one on sexual violence, with 30 young women who are church workers, six came forward and asked to speak with the team, says Dr. Isaac.

“Any social change takes time, but gradually, the change becomes a reality,” he says. “For example, [Egyptian] society would refuse to talk about female genital mutilation, but now the percentage of circumcised girls has dropped.”

The increased poverty rate in Egypt over the past four years has left millions of Egyptians and refugees vulnerable to human trafficking. This poverty is largely due to the economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, combined with Egypt’s weak social welfare system.

Sex, organ and labor trafficking have been documented in Egypt, and women and children are most vulnerable to being targeted. Street children are recruited for prostitution, forced begging, domestic labor and agricultural labor.

In 2010, Egypt criminalized sex and labor trafficking, with penalties ranging from three to 15 years of imprisonment. However, the lack of formal procedures to identify victims and refer them to care providers has led to the victims being treated as criminals, according to the U.S. Department of State Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons.

A form of trafficking particular to Egypt is “summer marriages,” where wealthy men, mostly from the Arabian Gulf, “purchase” an Egyptian bride, usually a girl under age 18, for a few days, weeks or months to exploit them sexually. This form of sex tourism is often facilitated by “marriage brokers,” who persuade poor families to marry off their daughters into this scheme and profit financially from the transaction.

According to the N.G.O. Girls Not Brides website, this practice is used to “bypass human trafficking laws [in Egypt] as well as Islamic restrictions on sex outside of wedlock.”

Marriage contracts are compiled, but not registered officially, protecting the perpetrating men from any legal or religious repercussions.

Nonprofit organizations and human rights activists are seeking to stop this practice, but the number of N.G.O.s in Egypt working to raise awareness against various forms of exploitation and to support survivors is still few.

An abuse survivor walks in the garden of the Oasis Center for Counseling and Formation in Upper Egypt. (photo: Hanaa Habib)

Wells of Hope, the Middle East regional initiative of Talitha Kum, the Rome-based international network of religious sisters dedicated to combating human trafficking, established a team in Egypt in 2020. However, its activities were delayed by a year due to COVID-19.

Sister Jeannette Alfi Soueiha, R.G.S., of the Congregation of Our Lady of Charity of the Good Shepherd, heads the Egyptian team of legal, psychiatric and art professionals. Mostly, they raise awareness through daylong workshops in Catholic schools and churches.

Marwa Abdel Moneim, a visual artist, leads the children in art activities and games during these workshops. Children will draw pictures or storyboards based on what they heard in the presentations on themes such as child marriage and online blackmail. She then turns those drawings into short, animated films the children can learn from.

The team faces significant challenges in developing activities and offering greater support to trafficking survivors, namely due to the lack of a legally approved status from the state, which it cannot achieve because of its affiliation with a church network.

This lack of legal status also prevents Wells of Hope from collaborating with government-affiliated institutions. The National Council for Women, a semi-governmental women’s rights organization, backed out of a proposed joint program for this reason, explains Sister Jeannette.

However, the team perseveres in its mission to raise awareness of the issue in collaboration with other religious groups, such as the Focolare Movement and the Coptic Evangelical Organization for Social Services.

At a meeting organized with the Virgin Mary Syriac Orthodox Church, Sister Jeannette spoke to young people, mostly Syrians and Palestinians, who had come to Egypt to escape war in their homeland.

During the question period, some young people expressed concern. Basil Wassouf from Syria remarked how poverty makes people vulnerable to the traps of human traffickers.

“To combat many forms of trafficking, raising awareness is essential,” he says.

Sister Natalie Fouad, R.G.S., who cooperates with Wells of Hope, says working with women and girls is crucial to ending human trafficking.

“What leads people to human trafficking?” she asks. “Poverty, ignorance and injustice.”

She believes empowering women through education will enable them to enter the workforce and be self-reliant. An uneducated divorcee or widow who is suddenly alone in supporting her children is more likely to resort to desperate measures, she says.

Addressing girls in particular, the team traveled to Good Shepherd School in Shubra, a district in north Cairo, to hold several days of workshops with the schoolgirls of every age. Nariman Hanna Nathan, who coordinated the workshops, said the girls encouraged each other to speak and open up about situations of abuse they had been exposed to, including online.

Despite the success of these activities, the team’s impact will remain limited until the organization can achieve legal status, also required to set up an office and offer survivor support. Until then, Wells of Hope will continue to work within the church network to raise awareness, especially among young people and poor and vulnerable women.

The CNEWA Connection

CNEWA supports anti-trafficking initiatives, with a particular focus on offering healing and hope to the survivors, through programs in the Middle East, Northeast Africa and Eastern Europe.

These church-run initiatives care for those most vulnerable to trafficking — the displaced, migrants, refugees, single mothers and children. They work to prevent trafficking as well as to rehabilitate, counsel and nurture survivors, reintegrating them into their families and communities and restoring them to health.

To support this crucial work, call 1-800-442-6392 (United States) or 1-866-322-4441 (Canada) or visit cnewa.org/work/egypt.

Read this article in our digital print format here.

About the Author: Magdy Samaan

Based in Cairo, Magdy Samaan is the Egypt correspondent for The Times of London. His work also has been published by CNN, the Daily Telegraph and Foreign Policy.

Get to know us and stay informed about the impact your support makes.

Nous constatons que votre préférence linguistique est le français.
Voudriez-vous être redirigé sur notre site de langue française?

Oui! Je veux y accéder.

Hemos notado que su idioma preferido es español. ¿Le gustaría ver la página de Bienestar para el Cercano Oriente Católico en español?

Vee página en español

share