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Modern-day Oliver Twists

6 December 2013 04:47 am - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}


As I stood on the edge of the cobbled pavement waiting to hail a cab, I was momentarily startled by a sudden tug at my tote-bag. Standing right behind me was a little girl, looking up at me wide-eyed while biting on a corner of her ragged t-shirt. “Nona, keeyak hari dennako ” she said timidly, as she grabbed on to my shirt with her grubby little hand.  

 “What’s your name?” I asked her. But she replied only after I handed her a few coins. “Sama.*”

“Do you go to school Sama? How old are you?”

 “I do  sometimes;  I am five,” she replied coyly.

It was past 9.30 pm in one of Colombo’s highly residential areas.

While speaking to me, she kept turning and looking back in the direction of the brightly lit mosque a few feet away.  “That is my mother. . .” she told me, pointing at a woman sitting on the pavement, leaning against the outer wall of the mosque premises. The woman looked our way, got up and casually walked towards us.

“Ai?  prashnayakda?” she questioned me, quite aggressively. “Amma look, she gave me money. . .” Sama said as she stretched out her palm to show the coins.
“Ahhh.  . .I thought she was in trouble,” the woman said, while identifying herself as Maggie*.  Sama beckoned Maggie to carry her but the plea was ignored.

As young as four, working till midnight  
“Today was a tiring day and I would love to get some shut eye, but it’s my turn to keep an eye out for them,” she said, pointing at a dark nook of the street from which, four more children stumbled out and surrounded us. Three of them were boys who according to Maggie are her neighbour’s sons aged 12, 10 and 7.  “These ones are mine. . ,” she said stroking the head of the girl in the group. She was carrying a soundly sleeping toddler. “This is Sama’s older sister - she is seven and my youngest – he is three.”

Maggie is a mother of six and she says begging is her only source of income. “If these children are not encouraged earn a few bucks, we will all have to die of hunger. Putting food on the table has been an uphill task since their father left us,” she added, getting chattier.
According to Maggie, they live in the slums located in the outskirts of Colombo.  “We work here every day. I leave home with several other families by 6 am daily. We particularly prefer this location because apart from money, we also get a share of the food brought to the mosque as alms,” she said, grinning cheekily.   
“Until what time are these children kept on the roads? What about attending school?” I asked her.
“We stay on the streets until about 11.30 pm. I have not prevented any of them from attending school. In fact, I admitted all of them to a school nearby and the young ones attend school on most days. Anyway what good, will education do for people like us? And with our income, we can only afford our daily meals. Keep aside education; I haven’t even been able to buy a bit of medicine for Sama!” she said pulling Sama by her scrawny hand and lifting her skirt to show me a rash on the child’s leg.
Meanwhile, a few vehicles stopped before a shop adjoining the mosque. In a flash, Sama and the four children dashed towards one of the vehicles, pressed their palms against the shutters and kept pleading for money. The children returned to Maggie once they were given some cash.

Daily income over Rs. 500
“So how much do you earn daily?” I asked the boys.

“Well on a good day, we can earn over Rs. 500 just in the evenings but we can always earn more if a younger sibling accompanied us,” he told me, confidently. But Maggie snapped in and said that using a younger child to tug at heartstrings doesn’t always work. “We earn Rs. 500 on a good day, which is rare. Anyway, the money we earn from this job is not at all sufficient to live. . .”

The children now seemed tired of being around Maggie. Maggie’s youngest woke up and let out a cry and Sama started tugging at Maggie’s skirt. “Amma, badagini,” she mumbled. Receiving no response from Maggie to their complaints, the children walked back towards the mosque and sat on a cloth on the pavement. A few people passing by dropped coins before their feet which they quickly snatched and put into a dented bowl.
“Aren’t you worried about the safety of the children?” I asked Maggie.

“Miss, if we were to worry about such things we would not be able to live. There are certain risks that come with this job, but we take one day at a time. At times in the night the police suddenly arrive and arrest us. But recently, their attempts have been unsuccessful as we are on the alert and always manage to flee before they get to us,” she told me adding, “If we were caught we would be separated and the children would be put to a madama (a children’s home). I can’t let it happen because despite the hardships, I cannot imagine a life without these children,” she told me, before walking towards the children who by now seemed to have forgotten about their hunger and were counting their day’s collection.

Giving money to child-beggars should be discouraged – Sociologist
 “Giving money to child beggars should be discouraged because the more they earn, the more addicted they become to begging on the streets. Parents of these children are looking for easy ways to earn money and that is also their priority. Only a handful of parents are interested in educating these children,” says Kelaniya University, Mass Communications Department Head Professor Rohana Luxman Piyadasa expressing his views based on a research carried out on child beggars in 100 cities and towns.

According to Prof. Piyadasa, one of the most interesting facts they discovered was that only 10% of the child beggars actually live on the streets. “The majority have homes and travel to towns daily to beg. Their activity is mostly concentrated in commercial and cultural cities such as Kandy, Colombo, Galle, Matara and Anuradhapura while their homes are located in the outskirts of the cities. There are also groups who visit towns such as Kiribathgoda, Walasmulla, Malabe, Kurunegala and Dambulla during specific days of the week from villages located inland, to wheedle money off those who visit the weekly markets.”
He says the vicious cycle of these children being put to streets to beg should be broken not simply through denying them money, but also through an effective, organised national mechanism aimed at their welfare. “These children will be used to beg only until they reach their teens. Afterwards most boys either turn into street vendors, drug dealers or become drug addicts while some girls turn into sex workers. Formulating a national plan that would encourage these children’s families to engage in employment to earn a livelihood and strengthen the family economically is vital,” he said while adding, “It is also important to move towards a family based rehabilitation. The presently followed method of separating these children from families and detaining them in homes for rehabilitation has not proven effective,” he added.

Speaking further Prof. Piyadasa said the national bodies established to look into children’s welfare should also operate more effectively. “There have been instances where complaints concerning child labour made to the given hotlines have been ignored. So it is important to strengthen the regulations while ensuring the national bodies operate effectively.”   

Names changed to protect identity Pix by Pradeep Pathirana

Child begging – worst form of child labour – ILO

“The International Labour Organization (ILO) convention 182 Section III clearly states that using children for illicit activities such as begging is one of the ‘worst forms of child labour’ since the circumstances in which it is carried out, is likely to harm the health, safety and morals of children,” ILO – Sri Lanka Senior Programmes Officer (Employment and Child Labour Focal Points) Shyama Salgado said.

Ms. Salgado pointed out that since most children used for begging are very young and are in no position to object to being exploited and also since they are unable to leave the ‘networks’ they are employed in, in a hurry, it is also considered as a form of forced labour.

“Most of the children used for begging fall into the age category declared by the government as the age of compulsory education (5 - 16). Moreover, they are vulnerable for sexual exploitation and other forms of abuse. Therefore, using children to beg is in violation of not one but several child rights including protection, education and nutrition,” she added.  


Limited role for probation department?

A top official of the Probation and Childcare Services Department who wished to remain anonymous, commenting on the welfare and protection of children used as beggars said their role in the issue was limited to accommodating children in relevant homes as directed by the Courts. “Even accommodating the children is carried out by the provincial probation officials. So the role of the national branch is actually quite limited,” the official added.

Regulations should be strengthened – NCPA

The National Child Protection Authority (NCPA) Chairman, Anoma Dissanayake said attention has been shed on making changes to existing protocol and regulations followed in cases of children employed as beggars, in order to systematically facilitate a family-based rehabilitation system instead of separating the children from their families.

“These children are encouraged to beg on the streets by their parents. There are mothers who give away their infants/toddlers on rent to beggars. So the important factor is to address reasons that have pushed these men/women into encouraging their children to beg and break the cycle. We conduct various awareness campaigns but they alone have not been adequate. This is why projects such as those initiated by the Child Development and Women’s Affairs Ministry for single women to initiate self employment ventures are important. In our capacity we have also initiated the ‘Surakna’ project that operate as shelters for abused, neglected children,” she added.

Speaking further Ms. Dissanayake however went on to state that more had to be done in order to eradicate exploitation of children and urged the public to be vigilant and immediately report abuse/exploitation of children to the Labour Department, Police or the NCPA hotline on 1929.


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