By Peter Kanjere:
The traditional visually-impaired old man or woman being held by the hand to go about begging in the country’s streets remains a permanent feature of Blantyre, Lilongwe, Mzuzu and Zomba cities, but now there is something more worrying.
Malawi has been hit by a new wave of notorious street kids like no other country, their sight is unmistakable.
Theirs is no loafing around and not just mere begging for alms because they appear mobilised, organised and strategic in their movement and positioning.
They stand by round-abouts , car parks, auto-teller machines and traffic lights while looking warily behind their shoulders, observing everything especially those cars crisscrossing the streets.
And when they catch sight of their prey, they combine speed of mind and limbs with ruthlessness.
They just did that in Blantyre, where, a few days ago, they dragged a woman, slicing her handbag with razor blades after swarming on her like bees.
Passers-by were scared to rescue the woman and in a matter of seconds, they had gotten with what they wanted and vanished—each to their direction in a systematic manner.
In Lilongwe, in one incident, the street kids descended on a car park and when the owners of the cars had left for shopping, tried to unlock the vehicles with masters-keys as the gang leader stood watching from a distance.
In some cases, when they want to be smart and just beg, they do not just do it anyhow; they often wait for a familiar car of that ‘bigie’, cheering upon catching sight of him behind the wheels before rushing to mob the car while peeping through the window.
In most cases, such ‘bigies’ are politicians who give the kids strands of cash or branded T-shirts. It appears there is some connection between the kids and the ‘bigies’.
Looking at the scarred faces, red and sleepy eyes, it is clear these street kids are abusing substance and they are deprived normal living conditions.
Child rights activist Esmie Tembenu said such kids are either sent to the streets to collect money by their parents or by gang leaders who take such children from their parents in rural areas promising them better living conditions in urban areas.
“The problem is that many children are running away from their respective homes because of drug and alcohol. They do run away from the homes because they want to freely and openly consume the drugs fearing reprimand by parents.
“The number of children we see on the street is increasing day by day because of irresponsible parents and guardians who send the children to the street to be begging, doing piecework or engaging in prostitution if it is a girl child so that in return, they bring the proceeds home. Some of these children are victims of trafficking,” Tembenu said.
Gender, Children, Disability and Social Welfare Ministry spokesperson, Lucy Bandazi, admitted that some children find themselves on the streets because of conflicts in homes, abuse and divorce.
She, however, admitted that others are on the streets because they were born there.
A recent census which Chisomo Children’s Club conducted established that there are 2,389 street children in Lilongwe compared to 1,776 in Blantyre.
It is estimated that there are over 30 million street kids in Africa due to additional reasons such as loss of parents to Aids which hit the continent the hardest from 1980s.
Tembenu noted that street children live the hard way as they are subjected to all sorts of harsh conditions.
“If the problem of children living on the street is left like this in Malawi cities, we should expect these children to be living permanently on the streets with or without their families because either they have no home or the home is not child friendly,” she said.
“One could think that the children are happily living on the street but their situation is precarious. They live in dirtiness as they have nowhere to bath. They are insecure. We do not even know how they assist themselves when they fall sick. It is also not known how they are buried when they die on the street.
“In general, they do not enjoy their rights and have no access to education, health care or security. Children living on the street are victims of different types of abuses. They are insulted, beaten and kicked. Both boys and girls living on the street become victims of sexual violence and they are at risk of economic as well as labour exploitation.”
The former Child Court Magistrate has warned that once the street children grow old, they would become dangerous to society.
“The danger is that, little by little, we see these children stealing, bullying adults, sexually harassing women as well as committing very serious offences. As they are flooding to shopping malls and other marketplaces, they break cars and steal various valuable items,” Tembenu said.
“The situation is worrying because we may have a lot of criminals in a few years to come. I am saying this because at a certain age, the children will feel grown up not fit for begging and doing piecework on the streets. This will result into turning into dangerous human beings living on criminal activities. Another danger is that children, who are recruited by adults to be begging, touting or doing any type of piecework, would end up recruiting others.”
In March 2019 Blantyre police rounded up streets kids and found them with 13 automated machine cards, 14 national Identity cards, nine traffic registration cards, 15 personal identity cards, a passport and six purses robbed from people in the city.
Blantyre Police spokesperson, Augustus Nkhwazi, confirmed the development on March 26 2019.
“The arrest of the kids (masikini) at Nandos followed a series of breakings at National Bank of Malawi Blantyre head office, Medical Aid Society of Malawi and Blantyre Agricultural Development Division offices where several computer accessories were stolen,” Nkhwazi said.
“The two children led a team of detectives from Blantyre Police to four men who were receiving the stolen items from the kids.”
Centre for Human Rights Education, Advice and Assistance Executive Director, Victor Mhango, has warned that if unchecked, the latest wave of street kids could graduate into hard-core criminals.
“We, as a country, are sitting on a time bomb. The children we are neglecting today will be criminals tomorrow. We are not taking care of them because our social welfare system in this country is not responsive. It is dangerous; the environment is not good to them but also they are a danger to society,” Mhango said.
True to his observation, some of the street kids have grown up and have children born on the streets. It is a doomed future for them and the only source of livelihood could be engaging in crime.
Tembenu has suggested a number of ways of how Malawi can deal with the problem of street children.
“Malawi, as a country, needs to have enough public and private foster homes so that children can lawfully be removed from the streets and accommodated at any foster homes where they can be provided with counselling, nutrition, education, training, medical care and parental love,” she said.
For the police, Nkhwazi said they were doing their best, arresting the street kids and handing them over to the courts which, in turn, refer them to reformatory centres such as Chilwa and Mpemba.
“We believe that some of the solutions to the problem are that people must stop giving these children handouts/alms when they beg. This will make them have no choice but to return to their respective homes.
“Additionally, this issue can and will never be dealt with by the police alone. It needs all stakeholders in child rights promotion to work together for the common good of children in the streets,” Nkhwazi said.
Questions on lack of social welfare services to cater for the vulnerable in society are posed on the doorstep of the line ministry.
Bandazi acknowledged that the increase of street children is a source of concern, but insisted that while the government is doing its part, parents have a primary responsibility to care for children.
“The ministry still has plans to remove children from the streets. Actually, it is a government supported banning and re-integration of the children from the streets [programme] that has a budget amounting to K70 million annually.
“This time, the removal of children is going to be strategic and not as ad hoc because we want to have a lasting impact. It was noted that the methods we used were not human rights friendly and they were not sustainable. They were done without proper assessment and follow,” Bandazi said.
She said, to get rid of children off the streets, they have done a mapping exercise to understand where the children are usually located and when they often beg followed by sensitising the children to the dangers of life on the street before relocating them to designated rehabilitation centres.
The sooner the government and all stakeholders deal with this emerging danger of street children, the better.
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