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The nuisance of beggary

The nuisance of beggary It is past 11 pm in Karachi; most people generally don’t venture out alone unless they have transport or are travelling in a group. And then they would prefer to be on crowded, well-lit streets and roads.

Then why is a woman in a burqa sitting on the side of the road on a partially lit road so late in the night? She is not alone, three children - all below the age of 10 - are with her, one is sleeping on a dirty rag and the other two are either playing or sitting looking around, although there is not much to look at, there are no houses or shops nearby. There are no pedestrians at this hour and most vehicles zoom past. A better spot for the woman would be a few hundred feet in front of the well-lit petrol station where there are people as well as vehicles and bikes stopping to refuel. She would have more chances of getting money there.

She and her trio of children are not the only ones sitting on curbs and roads begging, there are thousands of women like her across the country who are begging in this subtle way.

The main reason to use women and children is that they are good at touching people’s heart and getting more money. Many of these people may belong to professional groups of beggars, who use them as props to keep the money coming in, which work all over the country.

Professional beggars get most of the charity, alms, and other kinds from people who give daily but more on special occasions like Ramazan and Eid.

With the rising inflation, more and more people are finding it difficult to make ends meet - especially daily earners and low-income earning groups. Items of daily use are becoming too expensive, forcing people to forgo necessities. Many try to find ways to earn more for their families, and in this quest of survival sometimes begging seems like a good option. In a country where a large portion of the population is poor, and more are pushed down the financial structure due to the situation in the country, it is very easy for people to fall victim to mafias that control and run domestic begging circles - a lucrative business.

According to Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC), in 2022, there were between five to twenty-five million beggars in Pakistan - about 2.5 per cent to 11 per cent of the entire population.

Women and children are in more demand by such groups as they bring in more money. And it is not hard to get them, as already mentioned, due to the financial situation in the country. Mafias can get easy access to people, especially women and children, promising food or a ‘small commission for the work’.

The number of trafficked people made to beg is small, but it is sufficient to keep the supply coming. According to United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) Global Report on Trafficking in Persons 2020, about 0.7 per cent of global trafficking is for exploitative begging and the analysis of court cases has shown that women are subjected to physical or extreme violence at the hands of traffickers. This is three times higher than what trafficked males endure.

Commenting on this, Kausar Abbas, Executive Director of Sustainable Social Development Organization (SSDO) - a civil society organisation that works on social issues including trafficking in person and beggary - said, “Women and children are easy targets for trafficking purposes. Research studies show that 60 per cent of victims of human trafficking are women and children. They are vulnerable and easy targets. Traffickers are more interested in them as compared to men.”

“Trafficking is kind of an organised crime in which mafias are involved. Women and children are used for begging as they get more sympathy from people which mean more earnings or profit. The main reason why people get into beggary is poverty, and this is why people get easily trapped by such criminals, especially women and children,” elucidated Abbas.

However, advocate Farah Khan Yousufzai did not agree fully with Abbas. “I understand that one of the aspects of begging is trafficking of women but it is not very common in Pakistan. To be very honest, trafficking of women for the purposes of prostitution is very common in Pakistan. Not so much for begging purposes. In my experience, women trafficking for the purpose of begging is very rare,” expressed Khan.

No mechanism of controlling beggary The number of beggars in cities multiplies during festivals and holy months, as thousands of beggars travel down to these areas. Kind-hearted people are usually exploited by beggars who play with their emotions.

“It has been seen that a lot of displaced communities from the interior or from the outskirts of Karachi relocate to the cities and they come as a group and beg. You see them setting up tents and houses on the corners of the roads. Their children and women are begging on the road, it is that kind of situation,” observed Farah Khan, who is a former special prosecutor of NAB; and currently is an associate partner at Akbar Sarki Ali & Co in Karachi.

“Pakistan has a law which was made in 1958 which was the West Pakistan Vagrancy Ordinance 1958 - begging or any kind of solicitation for begging was banned and the person or the gang was arrested and jailed for three years,” informed Khan.

“The Punjab government enacted a special law for Anti-Begging in the year 2010. They have focused on children and women who are trafficked and put on for the purposes of begging. Sindh, unfortunately, doesn’t have a separate law. But Sindh does provide different enactments. The Child Protection Act says that children will not be put on for the purposes of begging but I think, Sindh is still following the 1958 Ordinance,” added Khan.

Although the local police have been given the power to stop the beggars and arrest them, there is no mechanism for the execution. For example, if you arrest them,and put them in jail, it is not possible to keep them in jail for too long as the beggars are in great number and all of them cannot be put behind bars for a long time. Secondly, there are no reform centres where beggars can learn different skills to earn and live with dignity. “We don’t have state-owned houses or facilities where these people can be kept,” shared Khan.

“An important aspect is the lack of the implementation of the law. For example, if the police arrest or pick up women and children for beggary, or if any department is taking action against beggary like the Child Protection Unit or Woman Protection Unit, where will they take them? Where will they keep them if they don’t have any protection centres? So when they don’t have enough protection centres, the rehabilitation mechanism cannot be improved,” pointed out Abbas. “When the police pick up beggars, they have to let them go in a day or two because they don’t have enough space, and there are no safe spaces for women and children especially,” noted Abbas.

Fortunately, there are organisations and shelter homes like ‘Panah’ who give refuge to helpless women and children. “At Panah, we make sure that women and children feel safe. Many a time police pick them and send them to us as they have nowhere to go,” told Uzma Noorani, Founder Trustee Panah Trust and Founder member WAF (Women’s Action Forum), as well as former co-chairperson HRCP (Human Rights Commission of Pakistan).

“We are running a shelter home for victims of any form of violence. Police recover victims and send them to Panah. As the police do not keep any woman victims overnight at a police station, they bring her immediately to the shelter home and then usually take her the next day to a magistrate for her statement, after which she is sent back to Panah. After that, the court oversees the whole proceeding,” explained Noorani.

Pakistan lacks a structured mechanism which ensures that begging is eradicated. Of course, the main reason for this is the economic situation in the country as well as the strong begging mafia and traffickers. These gaps in the system need to be addressed and fixed. A system needs to be developed that will not be affected by a regime change as it is extremely dangerous to leave vulnerable sections of society like women, young girls, and children to be left exposed to criminals.

“Shelters that can provide long-term rehabilitation and care to the victims,” suggested Noorani.

“We lack a mechanism to actually stop people from begging, the only recourse that we have is in the shape of the law enforcing agencies taking very heavy, rigorous action against the beggars but this does not stop begging,” reflected Khan.

“There is a need for civil society and service providers who can work with the government, who can take up these issues properly and also provide victims rehabilitation and protection mechanisms,” summed up Abbas.

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