On April 15, 2010, Human Rights Watch released Off the Backs of Children, a 114-page report which shed light on the forced begging and child slavery enforced by Quranic schools in Senegal.
The reason the report generated such a rapid response is mainly because the abuse is happening in Quranic schools or daaras, which are regarded as highly respected institutions in the predominantly Muslim communities of Senegal. Parents send their children to these daaras so that they may get a religious education, unaware that the schools are using this religious platform to abuse them.
The report exposed the hypocrisy and exploitation of these Quranic schools, by collecting data from 175 boys known as talibes who are current and former students at Quranic schools, as well as teachers or marabouts, parents, Islamic scholars, and government officials.
‘Street kid’ is a stigmatised label that has been referred to by UNICEF as the overwhelming number children under the age of 18, who identify ‘the street’ as their home. Human rights organisations working with street children have cited problems linked to drug abuse, violence, malnutrition, and the inability to receive protection from the authorities in their respective governments. In 2002, UNICEF found that while the exact number of street children is unknown, it is estimated that 100 million children live on urban streets, the large majority of those living in developing countries.
Even in Senegal, a country regarded as one of the more politically stable countries in West Africa, child slavery and abuse have increased exponentially. According to the report, Quranic schools (daaras) force at least 50,000 children under the age of 12 from Senegal and neighboring Guinea-Bissau to beg for money for fear of being beaten.
Matt Wells, the HRW West Africa researcher who wrote Off the Backs of Children, says, “The physical and psychological abuse inflicted on these kids, the majority under 10 years old, is astonishing. They live in complete deprivation and are beaten brutally for failing to bring the daily begging sum demanded by their teacher. Exhausted with the abuse, more than 1,000 run away from the schools each year, thrusting many into an almost permanent life on the street. These children are essentially denied any right, any opportunity, to be a child, and are not provided the skills necessary for self-development.”
Marabouts collect up to US$60,000 a year in money accumulated from street begging and often the children suffer from abuse and neglect if they do not meet their daily quota. While daaras are well respected among the Senegalese communities, the conditions in these schools are often unsanitary, crowded, and offering inadequate shelter. Talibes report that in addition to suffering physical abuse, they are not provided with sufficient clothing and food.
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While a large majority of families in Senegal send their children to daaras because they want their children to have a religious education, some families send their children because they can’t financially support them. Some even knowingly send their children into danger because there is no other option.
While Human Rights Watch is urging Senegalese authorities to regulate these Quranic schools, it is also important for human rights advocates to conduct further research on urban street children and the perpetrators behind the abuse.
Wells says, “While the government has enacted model legislation, including against forced begging, it has proven unwilling to enforce the laws and bring exploitative and abusive teachers to book. As a result, the problem continues to grow throughout major cities in Senegal.”
A MediaGlobal Article