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Nearing dusk and carrying an infant on her back, a six- or seven-year-old girl walked toward a traffic-light intersection on a street in Eastern Jakarta. Both of them seemed accustomed to inhaling the polluted air and ignoring their surroundings.
With the perhaps seven-kilogram infant on her back, the girl had to walk several kilometers backward and forward along interconnected streets. She only enjoyed brief moments of sitting when there was no opportunity to beg from jammed cars or passersby.
Not far away from her begging spot, a woman — possibly her mother — supervised her activity. She had more of an angry looking face than a loving one. A fierce glance was enough to make the girl get to her feet again although she was already trembling.
If we try to adopt a “sense of caring”, we may be able to appreciate the woman’s necessity of ascertaining if both the children are able to beg day in and day out. Having a cold, a cough or scabies is commonplace among these children. If we look carefully, we can see swellings or wounds on the bodies of street children who beg.
The use of violence to force children to beg is a preferred choice. We can hear the women shout at their children. If we keep watching for longer, we will also catch sight of the women using sticks, pinches and slaps against the children, or clutching their hair.
During Ramadhan, we see many of these child beggars wearing Islamic symbols, such as veils, and uttering Islamic phrases. However, in certain places, we can see them eating or drinking or even smoking.
In contrast, at almost every intersection in Jakarta, on both sides of the flyovers or crossing bridges, we can see banners in different colors telling us what we should do during Ramadhan. Besides urging us to perform good deeds, there are also ads telling us what to eat, drink or wear and where we can purchase these items.
Our political leaders, despite some of them being under investigation or standing trial for corruption, have often spent millions of rupiah on these Ramadhan banners. In fact, if we read newspapers or watch the news on television, for instance, relatively few of them talk about the suffering and violence that exists on the streets. Their smiling faces look nice on the banners but their intention is aimed more at forthcoming local or national elections or political events.
We can also see the blue banners with President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono telling us to practice our Ramadhan rituals. Seemingly prepared by members of his political party, with or without the party’s symbols, the banners show no appreciation of the plight of street children or, quite frankly, any degree at all of social responsibility.
On the other hand, the start of this year’s Ramadhan coincided with the uncelebrated National Children’s Day, which fell on July 23. We know from the media that the President was very busy and the commemoration had to be postponed until an uncertain time.
Regarding the postponement and in evaluating what the state is for the children, Seto Mulyadi from the National Commission for Child Protection (Komnas Anak) confirmed that the ruling government has paid very little attention to the providence of Indonesia’s children.
In conjunction with this fact, since the beginning of the reform era we can see that children’s affairs have been regarded as less important than private palatial events, such as the marriage of the President’s son, which cost a fortune.
Moreover, the misfortune of disadvantaged children is regarded more as a political opportunity.
Especially on special days, such as Ramadhan, charity shows appear to be a must.
Political leaders and high-ranking officials perform gimmicky play-acting to show their “generosity”.
Last week in Gowa, Sulawesi, we were reminded of another form of violent exploitation of children. Dozens of orphans had to be hospitalized because of eating food and drink containing poisonous chemicals, which were served at a mosque during a breaking the fast event.
Apart from carelessness or other excuses, orphanages, children’s houses and other social houses have for a long time been treated as economic institutions.
The big idea is that the exploitation of other people’s poverty is a very effective way of making money. In this satanic circle, we find three components: The disadvantaged, the management in the houses and the donors.
For many (not to say most) donors, for example, prayers, fame or political advantages are expected in return for what they have spent on the houses. Sincerity has become a problem of verbal expression instead of a matter between a servant and his God.
How can we say “sincerely” when we always tell others about our endowments or include mention of them on our curriculum vitae?
As to the house managements, how can we be sure that they are managing the poorhouses sincerely; perhaps they’re thinking more about buying a new car or a larger house rather than providing a better education or more nutritious meals for the children? We can see on the street banners that these charitable institutions emphasize that we should give them more money in exchange for heavenly promises instead of detailing their achievements in caring for the children
Perhaps, this Ramadhan could be an opportunity to remind ourselves of the plight of disadvantaged children in the hope that we may find our own ways to help them. Amen.
The writer is a researcher at the Paramadina Foundation and Ciputat School for a Democratic Islam.