Child beggars

Published October 12, 2021
The writer is a paediatrician at AKUH.
The writer is a paediatrician at AKUH.

A FEW years ago, as I parked my car in a public parking lot, two child beggars came running to get their pack of cookies which I used to keep for them. Returning to the car a few hours later, I saw the vehicle’s lights blinking, the windows broken, and the audio system stolen. One of the little girls I had befriended was eyeing me from a distance. I waved for her to come over and asked if she knew who was responsible. She said no but her expression gave her away. She was the little messenger who knew how much time I spent away from the car. Later, I found out that the two belonged to a group of professional beggars, who, when arrested, were not only instantly freed, but escorted in a big, shiny four-wheeler.

Child beggars at busy traffic signals are a common sight in most big cities in Pakistan. They are often a heartrending sight and we impulsively succumb to their plea for money. In reality, the money we give is not so much for the child as it is for the pleasure of seeing the young beggar smile, or self-pride at our charitable act, or, to fulfil our sense of religious duty or to combat our own feeling of helplessness at the child’s situation.

It is no secret that beggary in Pakistan is a racket operated by professionals who control territory. Beggars pay rent to reserve a particular area for themselves and the busier the site, the steeper the rent. Child beggary involves a complicated process. Most of the time, adults accompanying the children are not parents but their handlers. From the handler who takes advantage of parents’ poverty and the trafficker who abducts children to the peddler who needs to sell drugs and others who stand to financially benefit, the one who is exploited is always the child. Often the limbs of these children are amputated or they are disfigured to attract sympathy. They are also physically and sexually abused and kept in miserable conditions. Emotional neglect and non-provision of basic necessities including healthcare, food, clothing, education and shelter impact their psychosocial development.

Studies in Pakistan have shown an association between begging and developing an inferiority complex, lack of self-confidence, loss of self-respect, and poor social skills. These children remain in a cycle of poverty. Their future is bleak. They develop mental health problems, become drug addicts and keep poor health. In short, the money we give them only pulls them deeper into the abyss.

There’s no visible change in the number of young beggars.

The anti-vagrancy law of 1958 prohibits a child from receiving alms at public places or exhibiting wounds, injuries, deformities or disease. The Sindh cabinet in 2018 imposed a ban on beggary. Shortly after, the chief minister directed the social welfare department to pick up child beggars and rehabilitate them. The Sindh Child Protection Act includes child beggars in the list of children who need special protection measures. Additionally, amendments made in 2021 added street children to the act. It also allows for child protection officers to take a child requiring special protection measures immediately under their custody and present them to the magistrate within 24 hours.

Despite the several anti-beggary drives by the government and advertisement efforts of the 1121 helpline, there is no change in the number of child beggars seen in Karachi. The drowsy and sleeping infants in the laps of their so-called mothers have been tested on several occasions and were found to be drugged. The result of the Sindh Police’s project to test the DNA of children and adult beggars on suspicion of abduction is still awaited.

When police pick up child beggars, they are dropped at an Edhi Centre. However, it only takes a few hours before the parents or handlers pick them up after paying a minimal fine. Last year, a huge shelter was inaugurated by the Sindh Child Protection Authority with sufficient capacity to accommodate and rehabilitate the beggars and street children. Unfortunately, the police and the authority are still confused about their roles. While the laws are self-explanatory, it requires determination to get the new system up and running; and we are definitely lacking in that.

The answer is not straightforward in a low-/middle-income country, where the poverty ratio is estimated to be 39 per cent by the World Bank and where over two million people have fallen below the poverty line over the last few years. We must delineate clearly between begging due to poverty and begging on account of the mafia. The law is clear: the mafia and handlers should be identified and punished. It is the government’s responsibility to provide support to the parents of child beggars. If parents do not stop exploiting their children after being warned, they should be punished too. These children have the right to receive an education and to live their life.

Next time before giving money to a child beggar, please consider whether you are really helping them or pushing them deeper into misery.

The writer is a paediatrician at AKUH.

Published in Dawn, October 12th, 2021Newspaper.Column:LatestNews

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