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It’s not just Almajiri, there’s the Almajira

It is a phenomenon, and now the Almajiri situation is a raging problem. Poverty, illiteracy and population boom contribute to its rise. But over the years, there has been the rise of females among the Almajirai. A phenomenon more associated with boys is seeing an influx of more girls. 

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In Hausa, Almajiri loosely means ‘student’, and many street beggars called that are often from Islamic schools, and from faraway towns or villages, sent by their parents to study. The tag Almajiri soon became associated with begging, with the female term Almajira joining up. Now, dangers posed to young girls begging on the streets is causing a stir. That’s not to ignore their male counterparts. But observers agree that there is a spike in girl children begging on the streets of many Nigerian cities, exposed to all kinds of dangers.

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Abuja

In the capital, the sight of female Almajirai is no longer strange. They are familiar faces on major streets in the city centre. Many times, the older ones are seen carrying their young ones piggyback, or holding them by the hand.

Girls as young as eight wander about, begging for alms from cars stopped at traffic lights. Concerns about kidnappings, and rape swirl about them. The fight for girl child education is another concern. But for these beggars, education is not an option; schooling is not available.

Basira and her mother Halima come from Suleja into Abuja. It is a decision they made after realizing Suleja is swamped with Almajirai.

“The rate of poverty there is much higher compared to here. So you could say we make the trip to Abuja in search for greener pastures and so that we have the chance to earn more compared to what we can get there. In Suleja, the rate of female Almajirai is so much higher than the boys.”

Basira has dreams of going to school and one day saving her family from a life of penury. “I would love to go to school and be able to help my family and live a comfortable life I see other people living. But we’re too poor.”

Threats to female Almajirai persist. Many go missing, turn to prostitution; many more face abuse and rape. “We just pray to God to protect us every day. Many say that begging is not something a girl or a woman should do but when you’re left with no other choice, we can’t just sit around waiting for miracles,” Halima said.

Despite the daily hardship and risks, the alms mother and daughter get are not enough for survival.

“All we get is what we manage to buy food with and something to clothe ourselves with. We scarcely make more than N1,000 a day. The way food is so expensive, how are we meant to feed our whole family with it? All it does for us is stop us from dying of hunger.”

A business, any other livelihood, could take them off the streets, but it is not a realistic solution, they say. “Even those who are educated struggle to make a living talk less of us.”

Jigawa

In Jigawa state, 763,445 children are out of school. Some 372,218 of them are girls, on the streets of major Jigawa towns, begging or hawking. Many are of primary school age, introduced to begging by their parents. Some of them are guides for blind women. Others are conscripted into the life of begging by their parents, and roam major towns under guise of being internally displaced.

The number of children out of school in Jigawa came from a 2014 survey by the Education Sector Support Programme in Nigeria (ESSPIN) and Jigawa State Universal Education Board.

Hauwa Ibrahim, with her kids Maryam and Ali

Girl guides for blind elderly women don’t attend school-not for western education, not even Islamic schools. According to some of these blind persons, their guides don’t go to school because they are too poor to send them to school, but few argue that lack of time also matters as most often they are on the street begging. A check by Daily Trust also indicated that majority of the blind women’s guides are not their children; some are children of relatives, others are hired.

Two blind women told Daily Trust that they come from their village to Jigawa’s capital Dutse thrice a week to beg alms on the streets. One comes with her guide from Katanga village in Kiyawa local government area; the other comes from Kudai in Dutse council area. The woman from Katanga takes to the streets from Tuesday to Thursday while the woman from Kudai embarks on her begging on alternative days of Monday, Wednesday and Friday.

The days they are not on the streets provide opportunity for their guides to go to school-primary or Islamic. But it is lost opportunity. Asked  why they can’t allow them to attend schools as their mates, both said they fend for themselves through street begging as they don’t get assistance of any kind from anywhere. “If we must survive we must go onto the streets. Begging is the only source of our livelihood. The girls child who serve as our guides are not our own children, they are our granddaughters,” said one.

The girls are willing to go to school, with dreams of becoming civil servants and driving their own cars as those from whose windows they beg alms.

Lami Danjani, a gender desk officer, said, considering the population of the state’s out-of-school children, the state government embarked on massive awareness campaign as well as distribution of free uniforms to the indigent children saying. That has helped jerk up school enrolment state-wide. 

Sokoto

In Sokoto, concerns are also being raised over the issue of female Almajirai.

“It is gaining, momentum now. Some women are bringing the girls and they are giving them out as house-help and collecting the pay, but they are camouflaging that they are coming to study the Quran and all that, it is very exploitative,” coordinator of Northern Nigeria, West African Network (WAN) for the Protection of Children Abdulganiyu Abubakar disclosed.

He added, “It is hidden unlike that of the male children because they keep the girls inside houses and people don’t get to see them, it is only when something happens that people get to know. You would see them, very little girls and in the night, some of them go out for dancing, they go to hotels and when you get to places where they sell food in the town, you see them.”

Abubakar who is also Chief Executive, Save the Child Initiative Sokoto, said they reunited 13 of them with their families in Niger State last year. “Among those we returned, there was a girl of three years; we had to use NAPTIP to arrest the man involved,” he recalled, noting that some of the girls are from Benin Republic, Togo, Niger republic. “When we see them, we work with the National Agency for the Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons (NAPTIP).”

The WAN coordinator described the situation as very pathetic and harped on the need for government to curb the trend.

Luba, a resident of Makeran Assada in the Sokoto metropolis was arrested on the 25th of January with 13 female children aged between seven and 13.

According to the State Commissioner of Police, Murtala Usman Mani, the children were being subjected to child labour by the suspect and her accomplice.

The commissioner added that the suspect had been in the business for long before she was arrested following intelligence report.

NAPTIP Zonal Commander in Sokoto, Hassan Tahir, described female Almajirai as a disturbing phenomenon, adding, “The menace of the female, the Almajira, is worse than that of the male Almajiri.”

Tahir said they had identified some schools in Sokoto, Kebbi and Zamfara where the female almajirai are kept. Three of such schools in Kebbi, two in Sokoto and one in Zamfara. “We went to Zamfara where we closed one school. We arrested the Malam and rescued the children, about 15 of them, most of these children are from Niger and Kebbi states. With the collaboration of the state government through the Ministry of Women Affairs, we were able to reunite the female Almajirai with their parents,” he said.

The NAPTIP coordinator said they were also in Kebbi State where they went round with the officials of the Ministry of Women Affairs. For Sokoto, he revealed, “In collaboration with the state government through the Ministry of Women Affairs, we have identified two schools where these female Almajirai are kept, we are intensifying efforts to see that we discover more, we are sure there are more than two, we are trying our best. After identifying the school, they will be closed and all the female Almajirai taken to their various states. Many of them are not from Sokoto, but from neighbouring states, and countries such as Niger Republic.”

A blind woman and her grand daughter set out to beg for alms

He added: “When we close the schools, the Malam or whoever is responsible for gathering and bringing them to Sokoto, would be prosecuted.”

Hassan attributed the Almajira phenomenon to the search for greener pastures. “They think that when they come to Sokoto, they can earn better living because it is a cosmopolitan town, so they would rather stay here. Parents have the responsibility of taking care of their children instead of entrusting them into the hands of somebody that they don’t even know, it is better to allow their children to stay with them.”

He disclosed that NAPTIP had commenced aggressive sensitization and creation of public awareness. 

Kano

In Kano, majority of the female Almajirai roaming the streets within the state metropolis are said to have ventured into begging due to lack of proper care. Some of them told Daily Trust that they went into begging because they don’t have anybody to shoulder their burdens, especially feeding.

Mairo Musa, 49, is a popular beggar along Race Course Road, and she told Daily Trust that she resorted to begging in order to feed her children and her unemployed husband. She treks hours every day before she can beg for alms to buy food.

“My husband has been unemployed for years, and we have been battling to feed our children. The worst aspect of it all is that we are living in a rented apartment and we have to pay rent as well. That is why we couldn’t stay off the street, because the street offers us succour and food. If we could get a little empowerment we wouldn’t be here,” Mairo said.

A mother of four, Mairo lamented that even though successive governments in the state had promised to give monthly allowances of N5,000 per beggar, they had not received even a dime as allowance.       

Another beggar, Halima Dahiru Dakata, 59, is a widow and has only a daughter. She said she has been married twice and both husbands died. According to her, she had no-one to take care of her apart from her only daughter whom she married off years back.

“I am an old woman and all I need is food to eat, and shelter, nothing more. We are tired of being deceived. None of us want to be here, but circumstances pushed us into begging,” she lamented.

Zarah Mohammed, 52, is another beggar and widow who frequents Race Course Road for her daily bread. Begging, she says, is her last option to be able to feed her children and get some of them into public primary school.

A mother of 10, Zahra said she lost her husband about 10 years ago and is currently taking care of her nine living children. “My husband died living behind 10 children, he was an Islamic scholar no one was willing to take custody of the children. For 10 years now, I have been shouldering the burden. I have lost one of them, and ever since, feeding has been my major challenge. It isn’t my wish to turn to begging, but I had no option,” she said. 

Hauwa Ibrahim is a 50-year-old widow and a mother of four, who ventured into street begging for the upkeep of her children. “Where I hang in the city for alms is a known place for receiving cooked food from good people in the state. The need for food is what pushed me to the street to beg. None of my children is going to school because I can’t afford it, even though I want them to attend. I also have rent to contend with. What we need is an effective empowerment program, devoid of politics,” she said, just before moving on towards other female Almajirai clustered together, in wait for food. 

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