Dakar — Hundreds of religious leaders running Koranic schools in Senegal are keeping their students in "slave-like" conditions, forcing them into exploitative labour through begging on the streets and depriving them of food or medicines, says US-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) in a new report.
The governments of Senegal and Guinea-Bissau, Islamic leaders and parents are failing to stop the practice and protect children from such exploitation and abuse, it says.
"As the forced begging is done with a view towards exploitation, it is a practice akin to slavery," says HRW. "For at least 50,000 children in Senegal, economic exploitation is masquerading as religious education, as children are forced to beg for long hours to benefit the teacher, and are subjected to severe physical abuse for failing to meet his quota," Matthew Wells, report author, told IRIN.
These children, who live with a 'marabout' (religious leader) and attend his school or 'daara' are known as 'talibés' in Senegal. Over half of them are under age 10 and some as young as four. They spend over seven hours each day pacing the streets to reach their quota - on average 87 US cents - and the "overwhelming majority" HRW spoke to, are regularly beaten if they do not bring back the full amount.
Some 99 percent of the 'talibés' HRW spoke to must beg for their own food and medicines.
"When I could not bring the quota, the 'marabout' beat me - even if I lacked five CFA [francs], he beat me. It was always the 'marabout' himself," a 13-year-old former 'talibé' told HRW. "He took out the electric cable and... I stood there and... he hit me over and over, generally on the back but at times he missed and hit my head."
Punishment also includes chaining and stress positions, which could constitute torture, the report said.
Each year hundreds flee the 'daara' to return home, live on the streets, or find one of a dozen rehabilitation houses run by NGOs.
Most of the children come from poor families in rural Senegal or Guinea-Bissau, who are convinced that their children face a better future under a 'marabout"s care. A minority hail from Guinea, Gambia and Mali.
According to HRW, 'marabouts' keep most of the money raised by 'talibés' and can reap significant profits: a 'marabout' in the Dakar suburb of Guédiawaye with 150 'talibés' in his 'daara' earns US$116,000 per year.
Begging is vital to the existence of a 'daara', 'marabouts' told HRW, to cover food, rent and other related costs.
Ousamane Diamanka, a 'marabout' in Grand Yoff, a Dakar suburb, with 20 'talibés' in his charge, told IRIN: "Some 'marabouts' exploit children and keep the money for themselves, but the majority do not - we take good care of the children, take them to hospital when they are sick, and allow them to visit their families regularly."
Improving living conditions by regulating 'daaras' and setting minimum standards for them is one way forward, says HRW. The government is currently modernizing and improving conditions in 100 of these schools. This is an improvement, Wells told IRIN, "but since the number of talibés forced to beg continues to rise, the government's action is clearly insufficient."
There is currently no official monitoring and reporting system in place for abuses in 'daaras', and only one NGO - SamuSocial - systematically reports all abuses it comes across to the authorities.
Too often, said HRW, the generosity of aid agencies, which provide medicines and materials to 'marabouts', just further inflates their profits.
Another way forward is to enforce existing laws.
Forcing children to beg for economic gain is illegal under the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the child; while trafficking children goes against anti-trafficking legislation; and Senegal's penal code criminalizes physical abuse of children.
But the authorities still do not prosecute 'marabouts' who force 'talibés' to beg, says HRW. The organization is also critical of NGOs that pushed the government to pass the 2005 anti-trafficking law, but have not denounced the government's failure to implement it, says Wells.
Martin Dawes, spokesperson for the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF), told IRIN: "As an agency we advocate on a regular basis with governments, and are working to improve child protection systems. Abuse of children is against the law. We welcome this report and renew our call to the relevant authorities to protect children and respect their rights."
Failure to enforce the law emboldens child traffickers and 'marabouts', said HRW, and caused the number of 'daaras' to double between 2002 and 2009, according an official in the Ministry of Family.
Politicians are often too intimidated by the significant social, political and economic power of 'marabouts', to crack down on them.
"If you touch any of the 'marabouts', you touch the brotherhoods, and that is very difficult here. You lose votes; maybe you lose office; and you face trouble," said an official in the Family Ministry.
However, a number of religious leaders and prominent Islamic scholars in Senegal would be allied with the government in stopping enforced begging, said Wells. "The government could more proactively reach out to these leaders to ensure regulation and accountability are not interpreted as a threat to Koranic education, but merely to those who corrupt it."
[ This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations ]