The Plight of Street Children in Ethiopia
Seble Teweldebirhan, (Ezega.com)
She is probably four or five years old. She is small and adorably cute regardless of her dirty clothes and unwashed, messed up hair. She wanders on the street around Bole Medhanialm area waiting for pedestrians or cars that park nearby and she seems to have the skill to choose those who might show pity for her. When she finds someone she follows him/her and say ‘I love you, you are so beautiful, please give me one birr or cents. Buy me bread, I am hungry’. She does not care if the people are in conversation or on phone and she grabs their close if they do not give her attention. She would not stop until they give her the money or yell at her to go away.
In both cases, she does not get disappointed or excited. If they give her the money, she will put it in her little pocket and start wandering again to find her next target. If they yell at her badly, she probably changes a location, walking a few miles on the street. If they ignore her plea, she will follow them and keep begging until she gets that they will not show her any kindness.
Usually couples and older people are her targets. Especially couples may be to impress each other or show how human they are, will generously give her money. Older people also find it hard to ignore her appeal. She also focuses on foreigners who might be kind enough to give her some change and some foreign currency in rare cases. She actually thinks foreigners are more kind than Ethiopians. She knows the difference between dollar and Ethiopian birr, and the value of each currency.
That is an every day life of a little girl named Metu. She does not really like to be asked questions about herself. The only thing she wants from people is their change and then she wants to be left alone. Her words are also repetitive. She knows how to admire people with words of love and beauty. However, when someone insists to know more about her, she tells different stories. The first day I talked to her, I asked if she has a family and she told me they are both dead leaving her older sister and her behind. The next day, I asked her the same question. She did not remember me, so she told me that her mother is deadly sick and hungry so that is why she is begging.
It is not that hard to figure who is feeding her lies. She and an estimated of around 60,000 children are on the streets of Addis, and not only are they experts at begging but also at lying. Some argue that the number is triple of the estimate.
They might seem all alone on the streets for others but that is never the case. There is always someone watching them near by and if you keep talking, asking questions, their watchers get suspicious, and come to take them away.
It appears that, parents and ‘guardians’ use these small children directly. Mothers on the street have no luxury of contraceptives, mostly lack awareness and incidents of rape or unprotected sex are prevalent due to the situations they live in and the drugs and alcohol. Therefore, getting pregnant is a common story. Once the child is born, it is also destined to take care of his/her need in a couple of years after birth.
Saba guesses her age around 26. She came from Tegulet area from Amhara region to pursue a better life. However, that better life she came for was in fact begging. “I heard that people in Addis are rich and generous so I came here to beg,’’ She said completely confident that there is nothing wrong with her statement.
She lived on the street for the last eight years and she already gave birth to five children. She gave two of them to an older friend who lives on the street just like her. “I have a friend who is blind and wants someone to take her around. When I get pregnant for the second time, she asked me to give the baby to her. She is nice to me so I did give her. Now the child is old enough to take her around while she does the begging. I asked her also to take my last baby because I already have three and that was enough for me. She agreed so she took my last baby girl,” she said.
To anyine who may think of having a child as one of the biggest joys and responsibilities in life, her tale might appear simply shocking. However, Saba does not see a big deal in this case. “They have to help once they start walking,’’ she said. ‘’I cannot feed all of them by my self. I do that when they are a baby and when they can’t walk or talk.” However, even when they cannot talk or walk, these babies are at work. She takes them around the city showing them and begging people some food and money for her hungry babies.
Saba heard about contraceptives. However, she thinks that is for rich people who have the luxury to buy and understand how to use them. She never went to school and does not read or write. Therefore, she is convinced that there is no way she can manage using contraceptives. She also has some information about condoms, which she says most men on the streets do not like to use them.
Girls like Saba are also accused of getting pregnant intentionally. That is because people feel sorry for a pregnant women, which will increase the income they will be getting from begging. Once the baby is born, it is also additional means of income.
I asked her if she knew anything about baby rent. I have heard prior that on the streets, beggars who do not have children rent babies from those who have them. Since most people cannot resist beggars with small children, they are a perfect means of pleading. Saba did not deny that. “Yes, some friends sometimes ask me to give them my children. I give them for a day or two and they will give me some money as a result. I do not think that is a rent. Life is tough for us and we have to help each other to survive. That is how I see it,”’ she said.
On the rainy day in Addis, around Arat Kilo, Kana, a six years old beggar sings a song about the challenges of life on the streets. The song blames the rain, the sun and the wind, and their role in making life unbearable for him and his friends. He does his singing mostly on cabs waiting for passengers. The passengers who are already in may be because they feel sorry for the little boy, or they just want him to go away, give him some changes. He takes the money and changes venue again.
Kana, when asked about his life tells different stories. Just like Metu, the little girl from Bole Medhanialm, I asked him at least three times to tell me about his life. Both times, he told completely different stories. The first time, it was the common tale that his mother died and he does not know his father. The second story was he lives with his stepmother who forces him to beg and bring money home. The last was he has three little sisters and he is responsible to take care of them. Unfortunately, street children do not like to be challenged about their story, and if you insist asking more details, they will run. One of the days though, I Saw Kana talking to an older man.
I went to the man and asked about his relationship with Kana. ‘’I am his father’’ he said. “I am sick and I cannot work so he has to help me,’’ he said, although he looked completely healthy to me. I asked if he sends Kana to school. “Not yet, he is only six years old so he will join school next year’’. He was not willing to discuss further.
On the streets there are common stories of child abduction and trafficking for begging purpose. Alemayehu Kiflu, who has done a research on street children, says small children are abducted mostly from rural areas. Some of them are also trafficked by manipulating their parents with a promise of school and a better life. He also encountered cases where parents have given up their small children for money to brokers who promise there will be more once the child gets to towns and start working.
It is deeply disturbing to observe now and then that Ethiopians show less value for their children. If one thinks poverty is the ultimate reason for people to make this kind of decisions, it might not be necessarily correct. Alemayehu says even families who can take care of their children opt to give them up, or use them to the worst forms of life. “It is natural for a parent, no matter what happens to them to struggle to keep their children safe all the time. That is not only human but also natural of all beings, even animals.
However, I have seen young and healthy parents sit on the corner of the street and watch their small children beg, be mistreated, and cry for a few cents. I met mothers who gave up their babies for inconsiderable amount of money just to be pregnant again. It makes me wonder if we actually have that kind of coldness in our attitude for our children,” he said.
“In the rural communities, children are valued by the benefit they bring to their families,” said Tigist,Ayalew a social worker. “If it is a boy, he will look after the cattles, may be help on the farm, and contribute to the family. If it is a girl obviously she will handle the household, may be when she gets married families will receive some kind of reward from her husband and so on. It is never about what the child will become and what families can do to help them to be a productive citizen. This is a deep-rooted culture and still lives even in urban communities. Many times, it is ok to use children for income generation. May be, using them for begging is perceived the same way,”
“Parents resist sending their children to school, do not provide them nutritional foods, and even abuse them both physically and emotionally. That is not all about poverty but rather about culture. They do not seem to love their children when you compare it to the modern society,” Tigist said.
Notwithstanding the extreme poverty, not sending children to school, selling and renting them, subjecting them to humiliation and degradation is hardly a sign of love for a child.
As a nation, Ethiopia has several laws protecting children from any abuse. The constitution as it stands obliges the state to accord special protection to children and ensure, promote, and advance their welfare and education. The country is also a member of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which guarantees protection of fundamental rights of all children around the world. Though this has a better chance of staying theoretical, especially in countries like Ethiopia, at least it is proper to wonder if there is somebody out there trying to protect children in these situations.
If parents and the community fail the children, should that be the end of the story?
To be continued…
Seble Teweldebirhan is Addis Ababa based Reporter for Ezega.com.