Can Senegal stop child begging, trafficking by Islamic teachers?
DAKAR: Dressed in ill-fitting football kits and covered in dust and dirt, dozens of young boys chatter, laugh and chase a ball as Maimouna Balde leafs through a list of names. When a scuffle breaks out between two boys, Balde instantly steps between the former child beggars in the yard of the shelter for abandoned children in Senegal’s capital, Dakar. “It is tough here - many of the boys have been beaten by their teachers and forced to live on the streets,” the head of the Ginddi centre told the Thomson Reuters Foundation, reading a file listing boys as young as five and notes on various abuses.
Many of these children, known as talibe, are sent by parents in Senegal or trafficked from neighbouring countries such as Guinea Bissau to Islamic schools, called daaras, where they are expected to receive food, shelter and teachings from the Koran.
But tens of thousands of children in daaras across the West African nation are forced to beg in the streets to make money for their teachers, called marabouts, said rights groups such as Human Rights Watch (HRW) and AntiSlavery International (ASI). These influential Islamic figures, respected and even feared by communities and politicians, punish their pupils if they fail to bring in some 2,000 CFA francs ($3) per day, activists said.
Alongside a drive to take the talibe off the streets, the state is considering a law to regulate daaras - seeking to raise teaching standards and eliminate trafficking and forced begging. Yet activists are concerned that the clout of marabouts may hold back efforts to protect children in the Koranic schools as Senegal wrestles with its identity amid a rising tide of Islamist militancy in the region.
Many people in the Muslim-majority but staunchly secular West African nation are asserting their cultural and religious identity over Western values in response to growing anti-Islam sentiment in Europe and elsewhere, said Sarah Mathewson of ASI. “This extends to marabouts feeling excluded from Senegal’s education system, which operates in French,” she said. “They must be integrated and supported if things are to improve.” Many of the talibe arriving at the Ginddi centre are sick and traumatised, according to staff at the state-run shelter, which works to reunite children with their families. President Macky Sall in June ordered the removal of children from the streets and said those who force them to beg would be imprisoned in a drive to end a practice estimated by the United Nations to generate $8 million a year for Koranic teachers in the capital.
Yet fewer than 1,000 talibe of more than 30,000 in Dakar have been swept off the streets to date, with marabouts hiding them away or dressing them smartly to evade detection, said the state’s national director of child protection Niokhobaye Diouf. “Many disappeared after Sall’s announcement ... hidden by the crooked people who profit from their begging,” Diouf said.