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Shahwar Hegazi

( 1918 - 2014 )
Interview date
3rd of November 2001

Shahwar Hegazi

Social work pioneer

Shahwar Hegazi is an Egyptian social work pioneer, and a founding member of the Juvenile Welfare Association, which was the first and only non-governmental organization for juvenile welfare at that time. In the interview, Shahwar talked about her education and social work.

Shahwar grew up with her two sisters and two brothers in a family keen on education and culture, particularly her mother, Lady Soad Subhi, who was involved in Egypt’s public domain with Esther Wissa and Huda Shaarawy. The father worked outside Cairo, in the countryside, and was also interested in the social and service work. He was a member of the Association for the Blind with al-Noqrashi Pasha. Shahwar was enrolled by her mother into the boarding division of La Mère de Dieu French School, where she received her primary education. She loved her teachers, and kept in touch with them after graduation. She recalled Madam Saint Michelle who contributed with her handiwork in the charity bazaars organized by Shahwar through her social work.

Shahwar attended university for a year, but had to drop out for medical reasons. She spent her time studying the English language at home, before getting married at the age of nineteen. Although her first marriage did not last long, she got remarried, and had two sons and a daughter. As her children entered university, she decided to obtain her bachelor’s degree, and attended university for two and a half years on a scholarship to study economics. Yet, she dropped out again, this time for her children.

In 1937, Shahwar decided to establish a non-governmental organization for child protection, after reading about a gang of criminals, known as al-Tukhi’s gang, that abducted young children. She discussed the idea with her friend Lady Atiyat Mahmoud, who was a member of the Red Crescent. Lady Atiyat advised Shahwar to reach out to one of the directors at the Ministry of Social Affairs, but Shahwar’s request for the Ministry’s support and cooperation was denied. Nonetheless, Shahwar did not quit trying, and decided to consult Lady Ehsan al-Qousy who was active in the social service sector. She helped Shahwar register the child protection organization at the Ministry of Social Affairs in 1948, as the Juvenile Welfare Association. Besides Shahwar, the other founders were Lady Umm Kulthum and Lady Wasfeya Shukri. They received financial support of 500 Egyptian pounds from Lady Latifa al-Abd, Princess Shivakiar’s daughter, to commence the establishment of the Association.

The founders rented the headquarters of the Association at Kobry al-Qobba for the purpose of providing shelter, reformation, and rehabilitation for street children. For a year, the Association carried out its operations through personal efforts and funds donated by the members, who then decided to seek financial support from the Ministry of Social Affairs. The Minister Abd al-Fattah Hassan Pasha granted the organization financial aid of 1500 Egyptian pounds. As a result, a Social Education School was established inside the Association to care for the children convicted by the juvenile persecution. The school’s name was selected as a substitute for ‘a juvenile correctional facility,’ with considerate regard for the emotional state of the children, and the psychological impact of the stigma on them.

Shahwar spoke about her struggle at the beginning, owing to her lack of experience in the field, and the difficulties of dealing with children, especially in light of their fear upon entering the Association. Their condition shifted after a while, as she put, “as the children settled down in the Association, and realized they were among peers, they changed completely. They ran around, and laughed happily. Kids and are kids no matter what anybody says. You must treat them with kindness.” Shahwar added that reading significantly helped her learn the methods and ways of dealing with children.

The Association sustained its activities until the 1952 Revolution, when the Ministry’s financial aid was cut. Shahwar recounted the hardships that threatened the survival of the Association, particularly with the nationalization and the subsequent acquisition of the members’ private funds and shares. Accordingly, Shahwar had to reduce the Association’s membership fees that used to fund the Association. Eventually, she could not pay the rent of the Association’s headquarters, and had to give it up. The children were placed in the care of the State. However, Shahwar and her colleagues were able to raise donations, rent a new place, and reopen the Association. One of the main activities organized by the Association to raise funds was the annual charity bazaar, in collaboration with Lady Laila Ibrahim.

Shahwar shared one of the Association’s success stories, recalling, “after restoring the Association’s activities, and during the year called ‘the War of Attrition,’ all the cities in the Suez Canal zone were evacuated, and their population displaced. Among the displaced people leaving the Canal zone was a young boy pickpocket. He had to leave. Whom would he steal from there? Nobody stayed behind. The people captured him, and brought him to me. The moment he arrived, he asked to write a letter to his father. ‘Do you know how to write?’ He said no. So, we drafted the letter for him. He wanted to write and tell his father about the hiding place of ‘the loot.’ He listed the number of ballpoint pens and eyeglasses he stole, and detailed the entire proceeds of his pickpocketing endeavors, entrusting his father with the booty. Days went by until one day, a man from the City of Port-Saeed arrived at the Association with his young son, asking us to admit the boy into the Association, and offering to pay any amount of money for it. We explained to him that this was actually a juvenile correctional facility, not really a school. We only called it a school, but it did not operate as such. Then, the man told us that his neighbor had an unruly son, who was a pickpocket. The boy was such an ill-mannered child when he left home to stay with us, but he went back well-behaved, and learned how to read, write, and pray. ‘The kid completely transformed,’ the man said. This definitely brought joy to my heart.”

Shahwar Hegazi took great pride in the children of the Association, and the transformation in their lives and personalities after receiving the care they needed. She concluded the interview saying, “now, I see kids who achieved great success in their lives after having struggled with extreme poverty. I remember one particular case. A boy escaped home, and refused to ever return to his father. The boy was scared of his father because he did not treat him well. Now, this boy has built a mosque, and owns an apartment building. He came back and told me that he worked at a patisserie shop after learning trade and commerce with us here at the Association. The shop owner was pleased with him. He later married the owner’s daughter, and she happened to be the perfect match for him.”

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