KARACHI: A stroll down any main street can easily give a person an idea of how bad the situation of beggars (particularly the female ones) is in the city. These, professionally trained women know how to haunt and stalk pedestrians and people commuting in cars. They earn best when they are working near restaurants, hospitals, educational institutes, public parks etc and live in slums in almost all the towns of the city. According to a police official the number of these women on streets is estimated to be 8,000 to 10,000 in Karachi only.
The number shoots up with the advent of Ramazan because in this holy month, people tend to be more considerate about poor and those facing hardships in life. The other reason is that, these bold and energetic women are quite keen observers and psycho-analysers. They are well-equipped with phrases that lull people to part with their hard earned money and make them feel spiritually elevated and give them a false sense of having helped a needy person at the same time. They have certain pet sentences on the tip of their tongue which they deliver according to the situation and surrounding. For instance if a beggar is sitting outside some hospital building she is likely to say “Allah shifa dega,” on the other hand the moment they sense that some one is in distress, they say “Allah tumhari har pareshani door karega” or “Aap ki murad puri ho.” These dramatically enticing phrases can help them earn Rs500 to 800 per day which is far more than what most of the labourers or daily wagers earn.
Mostly dressed in bright colours and occasionally clad in burqas, wearing bangles and other jewellery items, these women know how to survive on streets. But if men try to fool around them against their will, their men, if they are working in a group and keep an eye on them from a distance, come to their rescue.
Interestingly enough there are hardly any disabled women vagrants. Is it so because less female babies are born with physical disability or that they are not subjected to various means of artificial handicapping? Whatsoever, majority of the beggars who appear to be physically disabled are perfectly healthy and wear makeup so artfully that one cannot tell if it’s fake.
While most of these females are born to families that are rooted deep in this profession, there are some who are kidnapped or abducted in childhood.
Used to the physical violence of their spouse or husbands, these women work day and night tirelessly. Their husbands are usually drug addicts and do no work at all. In other cases the men of the family belong to the same profession and earn with them in the same area or locality. A daughter, as soon as she reaches puberty, is married to some suitable man in the family. Not only she produces children year after year, but also has to beg and make both ends meet even when she is pregnant. These women mostly carry children, their own or someone else’s supplied to them for one to six months on a contract basis by poor parents against some money, according to sources. These children serve an advantage as most people who may be against giving money to the beggars would have mercy on their (healthy-looking, yet poorly dressed) children. These vagrant women claim that it is usually the poor who gives them money and food for their children while the rich slide away in their sleazy and shiny cars without paying much attention to them.
According to police and Edhi sources, 30 to 40 per cent of these women, who are seen begging during the day time, work as sex workers at night. It is also believed that policemen who know the system well also use them if the women are unable to pay them their share of money. Yet many argue that the money they get by providing sexual gratification to men (who happen to be daily wagers or labourers mostly) is not more than what they can earn by begging. Though, these women are also subjected to harassment/molestation or may be rape too, there has never been a case reported against it.
To the horror of many, many policemen do not know that begging is a punishable crime. “Under the Pakistan Vagrancy Ordinance, a police official has the authority to arrest beggars without any warrant and order. However, he is also liable to grant bail to the vagrant if required,” says Zia Ahmed Awan, advocate Supreme Court. He further said that if proven guilty, the person may be awarded imprisonment for three years along with fine. Citing Sindh Children Act 1955, Section 48-49, he says that the way these beggar women carry children whether they are their own or someone else’s, they can be jailed for two years. However, either police have never come across this Act or have turned a blind eye to this evil practice of exploiting children to extort money from people.
The only time that the police seem to take any notice of them is when there is some anti-begging campaign being carried out by the city government. Otherwise they are not even held for petty crimes like pick-pocketing and robberies that they so commonly commit.
The Social Welfare Department, when asked that what it has done so far about this menace, had nothing to say. However, SSP Investigation Niaz Khosa states that “there hasn’t been any anti-beggars campaign lately.” He says: “Whenever there is a campaign against vagrants, they arrest and then send these beggars to Edhi Home for rehabilitation, from where they run away or create so much trouble for the Edhi management that they are set free again.” However, Abdul Sattar Edhi’s secretary Anwer Kazmi maintains that the moment such women are accommodated in their shelters, calls from various people pour in claiming to be their blood relative and demanding them to be handed back to the family. He adds: “We receive recommendations from police, too, to let some of the beggar women go.” Kazmi reveals: “Last year, there were not more than 80 women who were sent to them, while none has been sent to them this year.”
Drug addiction is another problem pertaining to these women. Akhtar Baloch, Regional Manager (Sindh) of the Society for the Protection of Rights of Child, says: “Not only these women are addicted to drugs but also give opium to their children so that they remain calm and quiet while they carry them in scorching sun.” He also claims that if one visits their shanty makeshift house, there are 95 per cent chances of finding a television set, along with the dish cable there. “This is the major source of entertainment for their kids and husbands who stay at home idling away the day,” he says.
Dr Fateh Mohammad Burfat, Chairman of the Department of Sociology, Criminology and Population Sciences, University of Karachi, reasons the unprecedented rise in the poverty rate and inflation as one of the factors that has pushed many to opt for this profession. Mr Burfat also points out that “a beggar will never be found begging in his/her own area for the reason that people may recognise him/her. Therefore, mostly they belong to cities other than they are found in.” he opines.
A question that stares the authorities right in their eyes is why are so many beggars found on almost all the roundabouts and streets of Karachi when, according to the law, it is a punishable crime? The answer to this is probably evident to all except to those who can do something about it.