Why Addis Ababa shouldn’t criminalise children who beg on its streets

Street-connected children use begging as a livelihood strategy. Shutterstock/SunshineSeeds

Over half of Ethiopia’s 100 million inhabitants are Orthodox Christians and a third practice Islam. Begging, in the form of almsgiving, is supported by the religious teachings of Christianity and Islam and is very common in the capital, Addis Ababa.

My study involved talking to boys and girls on the streets of Addis Ababa to explore what they beg for, how and why.

I found that begging was key to the survival of street children. It supports them and their impoverished families. It’s a transient livelihood, and how long they stay as beggars is based on household income, gender and changing experiences.

As Addis Ababa develops into a modern city, anti-begging rhetoric is on the rise. Beggars are increasingly being treated like public nuisances and criminals, targeted in police street-clearance projects.

Ethiopia has experienced rapid economic development with an average growth rate of 10% since 2004, making it one of the fastest growing economies in Africa. The government has set the ambitious target of becoming a middle-income country by 2025. However, inequality between the rich and poor is widening.

Instead of criminalising beggars, Ethiopia should use social protection programmes and policies to support children who beg. Studies show that banning begging is not the best option as it’s a quick fix that doesn’t actually address children’s needs, or that of their families.

Instead, interventions should be implemented that take the structural causes of poverty and inequality into account. For instance, employment creation, support for disabled parents, housing and social cash transfer schemes.

Why children beg

Poverty is a major reason why children are forced to work on the streets. Family disintegration, abuse and neglect by parents, and the lack of social services are big factors. Other reasons include the failure of rural livelihoods, including displacement due to drought, famine and war; harmful traditional practices (for example, early marriage) or the loss of a parent. The survey revealed that almost half (46%) of the children sampled were living with step-parents because their biological parents had died, divorced or separated.

There are two general categories of children that beg. “Full-time” child beggars who use begging as a source of livelihood and “part-time” child beggars who practice it only intermittently.

Full-time beggars include children that are born to parents with disabilities. Because there is no social support system for these people, they will often depend on their families for survival. In this scenario, begging is a source of livelihood and children learn how to beg when they accompany their disabled parents.

But not all children earn their whole income from begging. Without a steady income, begging can act as a supplement to other activities. For example Genet, a 13-year year old girl, sells lottery tickets and sometimes begs with her blind mother. She said:

We live in rented shack paying 950 birr per month (about USD$20). I have a big interest in education, but the money we earn is so meagre that life is precarious. If we don’t pay house rent on time our landlords expel us, and insult us. Finding money for rent is always a problem.

Then there are children that see begging as a job. It is perceived as an activity which needs skills and the ability to do business. They don’t use the term begging to describe what they do. Instead refer to it as s'ik'alla or simply business. The etymology of s’ik’alla is an Arabic term “shigul”, meaning “work”. They see it as a legitimate and a way of generating money based on effort.

In recent years, however, the income families receive from working informally on the streets, has come under pressure. Activities like street vending or shoe-shining are seen as something that need to be formalised and contribute to the national economy by paying tax. Begging falls outside of both “formal” and “informal” economic activities.

Government policies

The city of Addis Ababa has embarked on new attempts to formalise many informal street vendors through job-creation schemes. But street children and young people aren’t included.

There’s a need to understand why children beg. Begging is not just about a lack of food or shelter. It’s about a number of social deprivations, including a lack of access to housing.

The children pointed out a number of priorities that would support them. They want a good education and skill and capital to startup businesses. They wish for the police to stop beating them. They wish to be supported to get education through flexible schooling. And nearly all street children who beg stated that they would like to be provided with affordable housing.

There are some lesson Ethiopia can draw from Latin American countries that have used cash transfer schemes to support the poor. The government also needs to start focusing on redistribution of wealth rather than just rapid economic growth. Urban housing policies should ensure poor families have access to decent shelter. There should also be social security schemes to assist, especially households whose members are unemployed because of disability.