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Opinions of Wednesday, 17 January 2018

Columnist: Benjamin Opoku Aryeh

How the streets are taking our ‘future’

We live as human beings to keep each other from the hazards and pressures of everyday living, however, when it comes to children we owe it to the society and the Constitution of the Republic of Ghana.

It is a matter of responsibility as prescribed by article 28 of the 1992 Constitution of Ghana that every child has the right to be protected from engaging in work that constitutes a threat to his health, education or development and also enjoins parents to protect children, whether by law or otherwise, from neglect and exposure to physical and moral hazards that are detrimental to the wellbeing of the child.

The problem of child beggars in Ghana is becoming rampant and it is very clear in this regard that little efforts are being made by all stakeholders in the welfare of the child to give the required protection and care to children who live and beg on the streets of Ghana.

A child by definition according to the Children’s Act, 1998- Act 560, is any person who is below the age of eighteen years, but you would bear with me that we see much younger children- ranging from five to ten years- on our streets every day. What are they doing over there? That will be a very good question that demands answers. Children are the most vulnerable of the population of the world due to their level of maturity and are therefore exposed most often to physical, social and psychological dangers that they have very little control of.

The menace of child beggars on the streets across the country-mostly urban areas- is becoming very rampant and it seems to draw little or no attention from public officials and parents despite some little efforts being made by some Non-Government Organizations(NGOs) [the kind of support they offer may, however, be questioned]. The number of children who live their lives on the streets increases day in and day out but, politics and other matters have taken a chunk of our time and priority as we prefer to engage in discussions concerning how to win elections than how to get these innocent children off the streets.

I will simply use the definition of child begging as asking for money without any return of services and this may involve physical or psychological oppression. These children comprise boys, girls and children with mothers who are rented for begging. Even beggars can be that professional. Another category of these children found on the streets as given by UNICEF(1984) includes those children who have left their families and live on the streets and those that come on to the streets to beg and go back to their families.

Many of the children we see on the streets may be battling with several challenges which may be affecting their health and development but who will come to their rescue? When a child beggar approaches you on the streets it is either you empathize with them and hand them some coins, or you ignore them in totality because you may even be struggling yourself to get your daily bread. But hold on! Have you noticed that some immigrant children-especially the Lebanese- seem to be competing with their Ghanaian counterparts on the streets? Well, what we must accept is the fact that most of these children are citizens of Ghana because they were born in this jurisdiction. We can’t disown them. I walk on the streets of Accra sometimes and I become amazed at how these little ones are so excited and enjoying their “trade” as beggars as though they were born to beg. I am resisting the temptation to say much about their parents who lie in the streets supervising these children to beg.

There is a progression of child beggars also on the streets of some tertiary institutions in the country. I can speak of the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST) and the University of Ghana, Legon (as confirmed by some students of the school). It is not only troubling for child beggars to be harassing students for money, but also a security threat as it puts the lives of students in danger of attacks. How can children flood the streets of universities to beg for money from students who themselves may be struggling to survive within their means?

In KNUST for instance, most of these child beggars approach unsuspecting students who may be attending lectures or have closed from lectures for money by pursuing them wherever they may be heading, which becomes very embarrassing and frustrating to these students who are unable to give to them. Under circumstances where a student is unable to give money to these children, they hurl insults on the students and some go to the extreme of pulling their dress and hair- for those with long hair. This came from some students after a couple of interviews I had with them on the menace.

Child begging is a reality and it seems to be subtly pervading our society as parents and policymakers look unconcerned. We are looking on as the future leaders of this country waste their lives begging and some maturing into criminals. In the next paragraph, I want to speak to some of the causes of this menace and how we can deal with it as a country. If we think of raising our GDP, we must also think of protecting a child.

I will begin to talk about how self-motivation drives children to go onto the streets to beg for alms. Research has proven that nothing motivates children more to beg than the intrinsic motivation to engage in the act. Anyone who thinks that these kids could not have such strong desire for money will be thinking wrong. Most of them you see have actually some tall list of personal needs to fulfil and you will get to know when you get closer to them and engage them in a conversation. The desire to get flashy phones and other electrical gadgets attract them into the act and when they are unable to achieve their goal, they are compelled to become criminals in order to get what they want. This degenerates into another problem where the lives of pedestrians are at risk of attacks from these ones to steal their belongings. It becomes more of a threat to the security of students in the universities who may be victims of child beggars on their campus.

Poverty cannot be left out of the conversation as one of the major push factors causing children to walk the streets to beg for alms in order to meet such basic needs as food, cloth and so forth. The economics of development in our country is directed at improving the GDPs, investments, reducing inflation figures, etc. which do not translate into the reduction of poverty in the country. Despite the many social intervention policies such as the LEAP, NHIS, and Free SHS, families continue to wallow in extreme poverty and to most of them, the only option they may have is to force their children onto the streets to beg in order to provide for the family. In order words, children have now become breadwinners.

Now, have you realized that education is rather encouraging child begging in Ghana than retaining children in classrooms? Well, here is the thing! When teachers resort to canning children incessantly and abusively they lose interest in sitting in the classroom listening to this same teacher impact knowledge into them. The many crude punishments meted out to students coupled with the poor teaching methods in our schools, make most children not to see the need to learn but rather engage the streets to survive. This hinders the development of the child academically and they may become school dropouts for life. Some verbal insults alone that children receive from their teachers are enough to erase all hopes that a child may have in the future

Humanitarian reasons can also be cited as contributing to children begging on the streets of our motherland. Here comes the question whether or not it is good to give out money or food to child beggars. In Ghana, you see NGOs and individuals giving food and money to children on the streets as part of their activities. But is that a long-lasting solution to the problem? You may have your own reason for giving or not giving, but as a matter of fact, the more these children receive these favours the longer they feel motivated to live on the streets. They continue to beg because they know people are so generous to give them what they ask for when they are on the streets.

The last but not the least causal factor here is the failure of the government to effectively process solutions to the menace. In our part of the world leaders have failed to tackle issues of social concern, rather, they lead to enrich themselves to the detriment of poor citizens. Coupled with this is the kind of patronage politics that seems to be carrying our Ghanaian leaders. The politician is unable to pursue policies that are directed at taking these child beggars off the streets all because they will lose some political favour from the people. Even though there exist clear laws- Convention on the Rights of the Child, the Children’s Act, the Constitution of the Republic of Ghana-against child streetism [the laws are not specific on child begging which is also a form of child labour] - our leaders have failed to implement these laws to the core and have reneged on their obligation to protect the Ghanaian child even if their parents fail to do so.The politician drives around in town and they see these children in the streets but turn blind eye to them as though to say they are not their parents.

I prefer to leave it here and suggest some measures our government can take to curtail the menace because I can go on and on listing the causes and the effects of child beggars in the country.

Now the solutions

First, the government must take the resolute stands to tackle the menace and get these innocent children out of the streets. Our laws do mention the welfare of children and the protection they need to survive but do not speak directly to the issue of child begging. The need has arrived for a national policy or law to tackle head-on the menace of child beggars in Ghana. I belong to a group where people were once discussing how our existing laws even seem to contradict itself on definitions of social welfare, social protection and social development. As long as we fail to give specific meaning to these terms, we may remain far behind efforts to arrest the canker within our society.

The ministry of education may want to consider revising the teaching and learning methods used in schools, most especially public schools, as they are rather causing children to run from the classrooms to the streets. There must be such environment that encourages the child to strive hard rather than discourage and put fear in them through the learning process. The time has come, I believe, for us to ban corporal punishment from our schools. Putting fear in the child does not encourage him or her to learn. It rather affects them psychologically and they may not progress in their academics. These children are the future leaders and we can’t afford to curtail their dreams and lose such human resource to the streets. They are teachers and doctors who will save lives.

Another way to solve this problem is to be more serious on the implementation of the laws regarding the protection of children by their parents. Some parents actually force their wards into the streets to beg for alms in order to meet basic needs or complement family income. Children are most vulnerable and are affected physically and psychologically on the streets which affect their development. Parents must be punished for encouraging their wards to beg on streets in order to serve as a deterrent to others who may want to engage in the same act. It becomes a crime according to local and international labour laws to engage children in child labour.

My final submission will be not to discourage the act of giving but to say that we must channel our efforts in finding a lasting solution to the problem than giving to child beggars because they look hungry. Let’s see how we can get them out of the streets as well. The fact is, some of these children are truly in need of what they ask for, but we must find other ways of helping them than pampering them with the little we give them on the streets. That is no solution to the problem. And in addition to that government should find more innovative ways of reducing poverty in the country so that we would curtail any possibility of children preferring to live on the streets than stay in the classroom.

A lot is being done by many NGOs to help the street child in so many ways but we haven’t gotten there yet. Families must be encouraged and educated on how to cater for and integrate their children into the social system without negative consequences; the sibling-to-sibling and parent-to-child relationships must be improved through a proper welfare system. Let’s save our children for the future of this country.

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