Child beggars, a sore sight during Ramadan
Cairo - Islam’s holy month of Ramadan is a time when the world’s Muslims unite in fasting from dawn till dusk. This is a month when Muslims are to contemplate their lives and spiritual journey, moving closer to each other and God. It is also a time that has seen, especially across the Middle East, more beggars taking to the streets.
Ahmed Zaid, professor of sociology at Cairo University, said the increasing number of beggars is the result of economic factors, not least high unemployment rates and a lack of government assistance programmes in many Arab countries.
“Social factors have also significantly contributed to many people being forced to beg, particularly as family disintegration and rising divorce rates mean that many women can find themselves in a difficult position,” he said.
Given the lack of employment opportunities in many Arab countries, Zaid said that many people simply have no other choice. However, begging, like any social phenomenon, goes through phases. In the past, a large proportion of beggars were elderly but there has been a rise in child beggars in recent years and they are particularly active during Ramadan.
Arab countries have particularly seen the rise of the phenomenon of children selling tissues or newspapers to passers-by, jobs seen as being but one step away from begging.
One child beggar, Samir Qassim, said people are reminded to be more generous to children — and particularly younger children — during the holy month. He said that he had been given new clothes and food during Ramadan and that people in general are more friendly to beggars during the holy month.
“Ramadan has a special taste. I wish the whole year was like Ramadan,” Samir said.
Muslim countries follow a strict timetable during Ramadan, with people generally coming together for iftar — the evening meal when Muslims break their fast — and suhur — an early morning snack before day-break when fasting begins again.
“Many people have invited my brothers and me to have iftar and suhur with them and to ensure we have food to break our fast,” Samir added.
Amani Qandil, an Egyptian researcher of social affairs, said that the more positive response to beggars is due to the special relationship that Muslims have with the holy month, which brings about a sense of spirituality and religious comradeship.
“This month also sees religious edicts urging almsgiving and zakat [in which Muslims must give away 2.5% of one year’s cumulative wealth to the poor] and so ordinary people are inclined to be more charitable,” she said.
The act of fasting, according to Muslim scholars, also aims to create empathy among Muslims towards the poor and encourage a more charitable outlook.
“We find that people empathise with the poor more and are therefore more inclined to give to the beggars they see but this in turn attracts more beggars to the street during the holy month,” Qandil said.
Recent statistics issued by the Egyptian National Centre for Social and Criminological Research revealed that there are approximately 1 million beggars in Egypt, with at least 500,000 in Cairo.
In spite of the more positive response to beggars during Ramadan, Qandil stressed that this was a “negative phenomenon” and expressed concerns about the increasing number of beggars on Arab streets and the effect this will have on society.
With more children becoming beggars, they are deprived of education and the hopes of a normal life and could fall prey to addiction and crime, she warned.