Forced child begging vs ignorance of the law

CHILDREN in Africa are more likely to suffer from human rights violations than adults. They are more likely to be victims than other children in other continents because of harmful cultural practices, poverty, wars in Africa, malnutrition, child recruitment, child labour, displacement of children and of late child begging.

Forced child begging has become a phenomenon so common and is fast growing wings with elongated feathers in Zimbabwe especially in this economic downturn and the public has not been spared to be lured by the mythology of charity and mercy to spearhead the exploitation and abuse.

Sociological definition of begging is the one which is most commonly used. Pursuant to this definition, begging is “a social deviance and social problem, which includes gaining material benefit by asking for money from other persons, with no intention to reimburse money or provide the service in return.”

Begging has existed since time immemorial and has evolved to become a traditional profession. That is why one may sarcastically be referred with a pseudonym; a professional beggar. It is only a sad reality that the occurrence has hoodwinked children and it is no strange in the streets of Harare and elsewhere in Zimbabwe where you see a child accompanying an adult with disabilities, holding a begging bowel in his or her hand moving towards an open window of a vehicle, begging.

This observable fact has also been packaged in the form of entertainment in streets where an elderly person may be seen playing an instrument or sings while the child is backing up the symphony with a begging plate placed immediately before them and the crowd is drawn to the show.

These children can now easily be seen in groups, terrorising passersby along the Seke Road flyover (just as you exit town along Julius Nyerere Way) with papers, soliciting for money allegedly for their education and money for food provisions. I had the privilege to ask them the whereabouts of their parents and some reported that their parents were at home, to which they would return by close of the business day.

It has now become an acceptable norm in our society, seeing grandparents, parents or siblings using these children as pawns or baits for coins on the streets. Children have effectively been turned to be worms on the hooks in order for the adults to catch fish. The use of children in this manner is strategic to cut a deep electric sense of empathy and pity from passersby who are easily persuaded and moved to draw out something from their pockets or dashboards. This instance speaks eloquently of the quagmire we are in as a nation, notwithstanding international and regional laws which castigate any forms of abuses or exploitation of children in this manner.

These children are being exposed to the risk of economic and sexual exploitation, enslavery and trafficking in open-day cast light. In this scenario there is undoubtedly a violation of an array of their socio-economic rights which they are ordinarily entitled to.

They spend their childhoods on the street under terrible conditions, with the sun scorching and the coldness unrelenting, whereas their peers are attaining education which can best emancipate them to live on their own in future.

Admittedly, this situation is mostly as a result of poverty, among other reasons. The scenario highlighted of elderly persons with disabilities is a double tragedy wherein it reflects the marginalised group as their condition cascades to the infringement and violation of children’s rights, which explains the interconnection, interrelation, indivisibility and interdependent nature of the rights of minority groups with other groups, thereby justifying a clarion call for the legislature and government to address the fulfilment, promotion and protection of rights of persons with disabilities in Zimbabwe. This will in turn ensure the adequate realisation and protection of children’s rights.

On the other side of the coin, elderly persons with disabilities are not involved, but it involves able-bodied parents and siblings who are sending these children in the streets in order to fend for the family or who are actively begging with the children.

Forced child begging constitutes one of the gravest and most gross violation of children’s rights. It prevents the enjoyment of children’s rights guaranteed by the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child — such as social and healthcare rights, right to education and development, among others.

It has to be widely known that the poor living conditions these children experience are an infringement of their fundamental human rights, being the “right to human dignity” in terms of section 51 of our Constitution, protection of “freedom from forced or compulsory labour” in section 55, “right to education” as enshrined in section 75, right to food and water in section 77 and most importantly section 81 of the Constitution as compared with the Lancaster House Constitution which now provides for the “rights of children” on standalone. It states that:

 Every child, that is to say, every boy and girl under the age of eighteen years, has the right;

 To be protected from economic and sexual exploitation from child labour and from maltreatment, neglect or any form of abuse;

 To education, healthcare services, nutrition and shelter;

In 2004, the International Labour Organisation adopted the definition of begging. Begging is defined as “a range of activities whereby an individual asks a stranger for money on the basis of being poor or needing charitable donations for health or religious reasons. Beggars may also sell small items, such as dusters or flowers, in return for money that may have little to do with the value of the item for sale.”

All children who are forced to beg are subjected to forced labour, which is defined according to the International Labour Organisation’s (ILO) Convention No. 29 on Forced Labour (1930) as: “work or service which is exacted from any person under the menace of any penalty and for which the said person has not offered himself voluntarily.”

Forced child begging may include trafficking for the purposes of begging as is provided in the definition of “trafficking” by the The UN Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking of Persons, especially women and children (2000) .
Other numerous international instruments relevant for suppression or prevention of child begging include: The Supplementary Convention on the Abolition of Slavery, the Slave Trade, and Institutions and Practices Similar to Slavery, Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, among others.
One scholar remarked: “The future of children who beg is bleak; imagine what will become of them when they are old and have their own children to look for. It will be a disaster and the begging cycle will repeat”
The above statement is a perceptible future reality in which our kindness is no benevolence at all. This goes with the old adage which says: “Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime”.
By ensuring rights guaranteed by the above highlighted international agreements and documents, and by acting in compliance with the obligations set forth in these instruments, Zimbabwe can remove a series of factors that considerably encourage the incidence of forced child begging.
 Zimbabwe is a signatory to the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) and the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child (ACRWC). By signing these documents, Zimbabwe expressed its commitment to take all appropriate measures, including legislative, to protect and enforce the rights of the child as enshrined in the relevant conventions to ensure that they are enjoyed in practice.

The four core principles of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child are non-discrimination, devotion to the best interests of the child, the right to life, survival and development as well as respect for the views of the child. By agreeing to undertake the obligations of the convention, the Zimbabwean government committed itself to protecting and ensuring children’s rights and they have agreed to hold themselves accountable for this commitment before the international community. They are obliged to develop and undertake all actions and make policies in the light of the best interests of the children.

 Policy planners must adopt multi-faceted, multi-targeted, and multi-tiered approaches if they are to have any impact on the lives of child street beggars in all four categories. Specific policies and other legislative frameworks are needed in terms of age, sex, disability, and family-related issues to effectively address the begging problem.

 More efforts should be placed on changing community attitudes towards beggars who are children with disabilities and emphasising the necessity of educating children with disabilities in order to enable them to face their future as independent individuals.

 Government must ensure that adequate legislation is in place to protect children from all forms of exploitation, including through forced begging, and punish those individuals who exploit children for their own benefit. Laws and provisions must be enforced if they are to be taken seriously. Legal responses are likely to be more effective in addressing the clearer-cut forced child begging cases, such as those involving criminal gangs.

 Fining or imprisoning parents who have exploited their children is less likely to be in the best interests of the children concerned. In many of these instances, working together with families holistically in order to improve the overall situation will have better success. However, in extreme cases, children may need to be taken away from their families and into protective care for their own safety. This is where the Ministry of Public Service, Labour and Social Welfare comes into play.

 The Ministry of Public Service, Labour and Social Welfare must device mechanisms to identify children suffering from extreme violence or exploitation through begging in all its different manifestations and immediately remove them from harm and place them in a safe and caring environment and should offer rehabilitative care appropriate to each child’s needs and context, including for example, healthcare, bridging and/or vocational education.
 We also applaud the government efforts in facilitating The Education Amendment Bill which was gazetted on 15 February 2019 which seeks to address the shortcoming of the 2006 Education Act (Chapter 25.04).

The Bill, when passed into law, is expected to improve the rights of children through the education system. Section 68C provides for the creation of the Basic Education Fund, whose operations shall be guided by the Audit Office Act (Chapter 22:18) and the Public Finance Management Act (Chapter 22:19).

The Bill provides that the Fund shall be utilized to finance infrastructure development, payment of fees for pupils who genuinely cannot afford. The Bill also stipulates that the activities of the fund shall be funded by monies appropriated by Parliament or donations, grants or bequests approved by the Minister.

However, it is important that the moneys collected from the registration and annual fees under Clause 9 of the Bill be paid into the fund in addition to what has been proposed under Section 68C (1) (2) to fulfill the objectives stipulated in the Bill. It is also critical that the Basic Education Fund be administered as an independent Board or Commission rather than the Government for purposes of transparency and accountability. Lessons may be drawn from the issues and challenges surrounding the Basic Education Assistance Module which was popularly known as BEAM.

 Those who give to children who beg should be made aware that the money they donate is not always kept by the children they want to help, but may be handed over to others who are exploiting them. After careful analysis of the likely child rights implications, the public could be offered alternative ways to help those in need. It is probable that the numbers of children begging and therefore those among them, who are forced to beg, would fall if a collective approach is taken by the government, citizens and civic societies.

Scott Panashe Mamimine is a human rights lawyer and practices in civil litigation. He writes here in his personal capacity.

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