In response to a Human Rights Watch investigation, Senegalese authorities have begun enforcing a law prohibiting anyone from forcing a child to beg. Since we released our report on widespread abuses taking place at Quranic boys’ schools, ten teachers who forced children to beg have been convicted.
In late 2009 Human Rights Watch researchers documented the system of exploitation in which boys who attend Quranic schools are forced to beg all day, seven days a week on Senegal’s streets to meet quotas for food and money set by their teachers. The teachers, known as marabouts, often live in relative affluence because they keep everything the boys (know as talibés) receive from begging. Should the boys fail to meet the quotas, they may be severely beaten by the marabouts.
Malick L., a 13-year-old boy, showed Human Rights Watch the scars from the beatings he had suffered at the hand of his marabout more than a year before. He recounted his experience, which was typical of many other boys we interviewed.
“When I could not bring the quota, the marabout beat me,” Malick told us. “Even if I lacked 5 CFA ($0.01), he beat me… he hit me over and over, generally on the back but at times he missed and hit my head.”
Human Rights Watch conducted almost 300 interviews with current and former Quranic school boys, families who sent their children to Quranic schools, marabouts, Islamic scholars, and government and humanitarian officials. We released our findings in April at a press conference in Dakar with an Islamic scholar and a local Senegalese NGO. We used the publicity generated by the press conference to reach out to donor governments and urge them to push the Senegalese government to prosecute abusive marabouts and to set and enforce standards for these schools.
The next day, during a press conference with Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade, then Canadian Governor General Michaëlle Jean echoed our findings, declaring that these abuses amount to a form of “modern slavery.” Her comments ran in major media outlets including the BBC, CBC, and the Guardian, among others.
The US government quickly took interest in the issue, recognizing the abuses we documented as one of the worst forms of child labor. The US government was also interested in the fact that many Quranic school boys are trafficked from Guinea-Bissau, another country highlighted in our report. Having criticized Senegal’s policies on human trafficking for years, the United States was a key ally in our efforts to influence the Senegalese government to protect these boys. Armed with our report, US officials cautioned that the United States would cut off all bilateral aid if the Senegalese government did not enforce its own laws against forced begging and take steps to end the trafficking of the boys.
Because marabouts hold immense social and political sway in their local communities, the Senegalese government had turned a blind eye to the plight of an estimated 50,000 Quranic school boys, the vast majority of whom are under age 12, with many as young as 4. But now, as a result of the media attention and pressure from the US government that we helped to generate, Senegalese authorities have begun to enforce a law prohibiting anyone from forcing a child to beg. The law has been on the books since 2005 but was never enforced.
Now, with the newly stringent enforcement of the law, Malick L. and others like him may no longer be forced to beg. As we maintain pressure on the Senegalese government to continue to bring abusive marabouts to justice, we are also pushing it to publish standards on who can open and run Quranic schools, which are currently completely unregulated. We are leading a coalition of Senegalese and international NGOs going forward to ensure that students will no longer be exploited by abusive teachers.