By Furera Isiaka
Today, 12th April 2023, marks the International Day for Street Children. Themed Keeping Street Connected Children Safe, it affords all stakeholders opportunities to raise global awareness about the plight of street children. Children should have the right to a stable and peaceful environment, which would them towards the fulfillment of their innate potential.
Children require quality healthcare and nutrition, clean water and electricity, equal opportunity, and the right to exist in dignity. This is far from the reality for the Almajiri children, a group that makes up the majority of street children in Northern Nigeria.
UNICEF report in 2014 stated that there are 9.5 million Almajiri children in Nigeria, making up a large chunk of the out-of-school children in the world’s most populous black nation. Almajiri is a person who has left his home to seek Islamic knowledge.
The Almajiri education system was originally called the Tsangaya and has existed since the 11th century in the Kanem Borno Empire. It was established as an organized and comprehensive education system for learning Islamic principles, values, jurisdiction, and theology. Islam considers it a great virtue to migrate to another place to pursue Islamic knowledge.
This system once produced notable scholars and leaders but unfortunately today, it has deteriorated and cannot cope with wider community needs. These Almajiri boys from ages 4, 5, and above are mostly found in dehumanizing and terrible conditions roaming the streets begging for basic needs like food, shelter, and money from the public to sustain themselves.
They are exposed to hardships and dangers which can even lead to death. Islam discourages begging because it lowers a person’s dignity. The prophet Muhammad (SAW) said “No slave (of Allah) opens up a door to begging except that Allah opens a door for him to poverty.”
Over time, the discovery of several torture houses in Islamic schools in Kaduna, Niger, Oyo, and Katsina states where children, boys, and girls are brutalized, starved, and sexually exploited in the name of rehabilitation further exposes the dehumanizing conditions faced by street children.
During the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, Almajiri children could not comply with the basic protective measures put in place by governments to mitigate the pandemic spread. Considering the risk factor and contagious nature of the disease, governors in Northern Nigeria collectively agreed to evacuate the Almajiri out of the streets and back to their homes. This step was based on the discriminatory position that their lifestyle could distort the effectiveness of safety measures. They were hounded and taken back home because they were considered a threat to all. Today, they are back on the streets in large numbers.
The recent cash crunch accentuated the deprivations of the Almajiri. People could not access cash to meet their basic needs, so they had no extra money to give out as charity to the street children.
This made things very difficult for the almajiri because they could not get help in cash and kindness. This situation is exemplified by the case of Haruna, an Almajiri at Makarantar Mallam Mamuda in Hotoro, Kano state, who explained that he roamed the streets for 4 weeks and could not get as little as ₦10.
He said the people’s faces were not welcoming. “If you approach a person, before you open your mouth and say a word, they will scold you and ask if you are not aware of the cash scarcity in the country. Even the simple errands for which we make money are no longer available because there is no money to pay for services.
“The same thing happens when you beg for food. People curse you and ask you to go away because everyone is frustrated. It was very difficult but thank God there is money now,” he said.
Recognizing the importance of sustainably addressing the troubling human rights crises faced by the Almajiri children who survive on the streets with no organized support, the Resource Centre for Human Rights and Civic Education (CHRICED) and Anti-Slavery International (ASI), a long-standing stakeholder in addressing slavery issues and forced child begging in Africa, supported by US State Department Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor Issues (US DRL) carried out a research titled: Shackled to the Past: An Exploration of the Best Prospects for Combatting Forced Child Begging In Nigeria. The study looked at the plight of Almajiri children in Borno, Kano, and Nassarawa states.
It discovered that hunger is the primary driver of forced child begging. Almajiri children growing up without their parents and being abandoned by the government suffer the most due to their acute sense of loneliness. Despite government initiatives ranging from the Universal Basic Education Act (2014), integrated Almajiri model schools, supporting community-owned Tsangayas by the administration of Goodluck Jonathan in 2012, school feeding programs, Islamic alms, community-based education (Islamiyya) targeted vocational training, advocacy for child protection and others, limited success has been recorded.
The research proffers some recommendations, which are directed at key institutions in the democratic process. This includes efforts towards addressing legislative limitations; states should go beyond making statements of declaration. States are urged to strengthen local participation to involve community stakeholders, broaden educational empowerment, support basic needs, and advocate empathy and inclusion. Through its knowledge products, CHRICED has consistently called for a dramatic escalation of support for marginalized communities, working with national and international partners to standardize formal and non-formal education.
Also, the Federal and State level governments should refrain from narrow criminalization of begging which leads to marginalizing the Almajiri, and instead strengthen the partnership with child support actors and law enforcement agencies to document, investigate and bring to justice perpetrators of abuses against Almajiri children in line with the Child Rights Acts and other laws to which Nigeria abounds.
One key condition of attaining the Sustainable Development Goals is that countries leave no one behind by putting in place everything necessary to ensure street children have access to an inclusive and equitable education that empowers and allows them to reach their full potential. In 2019, President Muhammadu Buhari’s administration clearly stated that it was committed to free and compulsory education as a long-term objective of ending out-of-school children would be achieved.
Despite plenty of talk by the Federal Government, nothing concrete has been achieved in this respect. Finally, There is an urgent need for all stakeholders from the government (local, state, and federal), civil society organizations, media, religious leaders, community, traditional leaders, international partners, and parents to come together to chart a pathway for the reform of the current almajiri system of education.
The overarching goal of such an intervention would be to improve the living conditions of Almajiri children. Like every child, they have rights that should be promoted and protected.
Isiaka is Communications Officer at CHRICED