Street begging is as old as time itself, and now, perhaps more than ever before, leaders have taken it as a social crisis that needs some quick and exacting attention.
It continues evolving into a vicious circle with children born to street beggars grabbing the trend as some fast cash-making trade, sticking their future to no particular potential of formally earning a living. And that, according to child rights campaigners, is an upsetting development.
Take this, for instance: a mother spends the whole of her latter life begging from one street to another; her children, born while she does the trade, take nothing else as some preparation for their future; the trend repeats itself and what comes out at the end is a social crisis.
That is why there was some hope and optimism when government announced, last year, that everyone found begging in the country’s streets and those giving out the alms would be charged.
One clear thing is that the biggest victims of street begging are children who are usually used by either their parents, particularly mothers, or older siblings. Tables turn and the breadwinners become those who were supposed to be taken care of.
The plan by government flopped and the streets continue being lined with beggars who do not only impede the free flow of traffic but are also exposed to physical, sexual and psychological abuse.
Former principal secretary in the Ministry of Gender, Children, Disability and Social Welfare, Mary Shawa, admits that getting beggars out of the streets proved problematic because, among others, there was supposed to be a place to take them to.
The Malawi government does not have that place.
Shawa also draws parallels between the current situation and what was the case in the early 90s when the few street beggars that were there would recurrently be taken back to their homes while it cannot work now because the population of street begging is relatively big.
A recent study by a child welfare organisation, Chisomo Children’s Club, revealed that Lilongwe, Blantyre and Zomba have a cumulative population of street children in excess of 4, 400 with around 4, 000 of them coming from their parents’ home.
They are sent out to beg for family’s sustenance.
“Some people have taken the good will of those who give them alms to take begging as a profession. We have compared notes with our colleagues in other countries like Scotland where there are professional beggars.
“This phenomenon seems to be encroaching onto Malawi slowly; that’s why some families send their children to seek alms in the country’s streets,” says Shawa.
Such words do not really offer hope to those who feel street begging is a social crisis that has to be dealt with urgently.
The United Nations Children’s Education Fund (Unicef) says parents, guardians and all those in whose custody children are must take it upon themselves to provide the best care for them and avoid using children for their sustenance.
On the other hand, Chisomo Children’s Club Executive Director, Charles Gwengwe, argues that perhaps getting beggars, particularly children, out of the streets may not be the most viable option at the moment.
Gwengwe, whose organisation has taken a leading role in rehabilitating street children, believes street begging needs to be looked at from different perspectives including that it is simply a demonstration of socio-economic challenges bedevilling most Malawians.
“There are socio-economic push factors that we must begin to address before we tackle the issue of street begging. The sweeping approach has never worked from way back.
“There are more promising practices and approaches that we need to think of. It is good for the government to embrace these promising practices in relation to the protection of children,” says Gwengwe.
According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco), all categories of street children – those working on the streets as their only means of survival, those who take refuge in the streets but return home at night and those who permanently live on the streets without a family network – are at risk of abuse, exploitation and vigilante or police violence.
“Without some form of basic education and economic training, the future is bleak for these street children and their life expectancy terrifyingly low. How does one bring education to these children who are often treated as criminals and wary of institutions, authority and organised activities?” Unesco queries in a ‘Street Children’ article on its website.
The UN agency further opines that non-formal education is one way to address the concerns while leaving the door open to mainstream education later on.
Gwengwe agrees with such an approach. He argues that at a certain point, deliberate programmes must be developed to reach out to the children in the streets without forcing them out.
“We need to build trust in these children, which is a fundamental thing so that they are given a chance to embark on change and look for alternatives to living on the streets,” he says. “We need to strengthen our work with families and communities and have a holistic approach to this social problem.”
It appears even government’s arrangement of driving beggars out of the streets did not consider the stubborn push factors which different stakeholders including Unicef say need to be addressed by authorities.
In fact, Shawa admits that even though the Child Care, Protection and Justice Act criminalises the use of children in begging, there is need to popularise the law and to compare what is happening in other countries including working with the beggars themselves.
“What we see on begging is on the surface. There is more to begging than what we see,” she says, an apparent reference to the socio-economic push factors that drive people into the trade.
Shawa adds: “We also know that the law says that when you are taking children out of the streets, you cannot use uniformed police officers or those carrying guns… We felt we can take the children and other beggars out of the streets but they will return; that is why we need to change the approach.”
She says government needs a safe home where children will learn different skills that will make them self-reliant.
“There they will be taken through the process of rehabilitation and skills training so that they can realise their real potential. The social cash transfer programme will also address street begging because the money should keep them going,” says Shawa.
A third approach is for the benefactors to open or create a fund so that the households are assisted in their localities and avoid going into the streets for begging. This, according to Shawa, will also ensure the beggars venture into economic empowerment programmes.
The rate at which Malawi is being urbanised further throws spanners into efforts towards dealing with street begging.
It is clear that not all those that are moving into urban centres have the formal and proper means of survival, and Gwengwe is worried with such a development.
“When they arrive in towns, they discover they don’t have the skills that the towns are looking for. We have many of them in peri-urban areas. It is unfortunate that there is a deliberate attempt to turn a blind eye to urban poverty which is worse,” says Gwengwe.
He faults government for reducing the social welfare expenditure in the Ministry of Gender, Children, Disability and Social welfare, a thing which he says thrusts the department into a testimonial status in the ministry.
A street beggar, Samuel Dimba, says he is ready to dump the trade if someone comes to his rescue. He even wonders why “a lot of noise is being made” on reaching out to the needy when “it is clear that we are never really reached out to”.
Perhaps, government and other stakeholders in the social welfare sector need to be given the benefit of the doubt as they apparently pursue the road towards streets free of beggars.
This, as Unicef says, is mostly for the sake of children who are forced to recreate a social crisis that they never dreamed of in the first place.
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