This open-air shack in Saint-Louis, a town in northern Senegal, serves as a so-called “Quranic school,” a typical example of the inhumane conditions in many such schools.

(Dakar) – Senegal has prosecuted only a handful of cases involving children who are trafficked and forced to beg by abusive teachers in Quranic schools despite a decade-old law outlawing the practice, Human Rights Watch and the Platform for the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights (PPDH), a coalition of 40 Senegalese organizations, said today.

Tens of thousands of children face rampant abuse and exploitation despite the 2005 law, the groups said. Social workers, government officials, and activists Human Rights Watch interviewed in January 2015 said they believe the number of boys, known as talibé, enduring abuse in the Quranic schools, which are not regulated, is increasing, with more and younger children affected. A 2014 government census of daaras, or Quranic schools, found over 30,000 boys subjected to forced begging in the Dakar region alone.

“Over the last decade, tens of thousands of children have been exploited in the name of education, beaten by their so-called teachers, and subjected to horrific conditions in schools that have no business operating,” said Mamadou Wane, PPDH president. “The message government is sending, by its failure to investigate and prosecute the people behind these abuses, is that the lives of these children are not worth protecting.”

Several state and non-state social workers and activists noted that over the last year the situation has deteriorated. One social worker who has worked with talibés for five years said exploited children are now being forced to bring back even higher daily quotas from begging and are exploited not only by their teacher but also often by his wife, teaching assistants, and older talibés.

Over two weeks in January 2015, Human Rights Watch interviewed 9 talibés as well as 21 government officials, child welfare workers, social workers, religious leaders, parents, and Quranic school teachers to assess the extent of the abuse and progress on bringing the abusers to justice. The talibés, ages 5 to 15, were interviewed in Dakar and Saint-Louis, one of Senegal’s largest cities and a center for Quranic learning in the north. Hundreds of other children were observed begging on the streets and living in squalid daaras. This research builds on 2010 and 2014 Human Rights Watch research into the practice of forced begging in Senegal.

The boys described regular beatings with rubber whips, pieces of wood, and unraveled rope by their Quranic teacher and his assistants. An 8-year-old told Human Rights Watch that he was one of several boys repeatedly forced into a room, stripped, held down, and beaten across the torso with a strip of car tire for extended periods. Many other children in this and other daaras were visibly suffering from infected wounds and skin diseases and complained also of gastrointestinal illness. None of the students interviewed received any medical treatment in their Quranic schools nor did their Quranic teachers pay for medical treatment elsewhere.
 

On a Saint-Louis street at night, Human Rights Watch found several boys, one as young as 8, sleeping on the street under a thin nylon sheet inside a makeshift tent of tattered rice bags and driftwood. Several of the boys had recently run away from Quranic schools after being repeatedly beaten by their abusive teachers.

“There is simply no excuse for the Senegalese authorities’ failure to implement their own laws in favor of protecting these vulnerable children, all the more so when the abuse is so openly on display for all to see,” said Mamadou Ndiaye, PPDH coordinator and activist.

The long tradition of sending boys to study at Quranic boarding schools in Senegal is rooted in positive values of religious and moral education, and there are many legitimate Quranic schools that ensure the well-being of their students and provide religious education, the groups said.

Parents often send children to learn the Quran at boarding schools where, in their absence, Quranic teachers become de facto guardians. However, thousands of so-called teachers use religious education as a cover for economic exploitation of the children in their charge, with no fear of being investigated or prosecuted.

The government should act immediately to remove children from abusive and dangerous daaras and enforce laws that protect children from forced begging, violence, and neglect, the groups said. After meaningful and transparent consultation, the National Assembly should pass a draft law regulating Quranic schools, and the government should ensure adequate resources to implement the law.

“The abuse being meted out by these so-called teachers is on display every day and in plain view for all to see, and yet the police and judiciary have consistently failed to open investigations and hold them to account,” said Corinne Dufka, West Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The suffering of the talibé is a blind spot in Senegalese society.”

Abuses in Quranic Schools
As previously documented by Human Rights Watch and other groups, abusive Quranic schools operate as businesses. The men in charge routinely force their students to beg for a daily quota of money, and of rice and sugar for resale, inflicting severe physical and psychological abuse on those who fail to meet it. As punishment, children are frequently chained, bound, and forced into stress positions.

The living and sleeping environments in the offending Quranic schools are cramped and unhygienic, and medical conditions and wounds regularly go untreated. Even deaths sometimes go unreported. The boys typically suffer severe malnutrition, while the long hours on the street put them at risk of harm from car accidents, physical and sexual abuse, and diseases.

In recent years, numerous children have died as a result of abuse, including nine children who burned to death in a dilapidated Quranic school in Dakar’s central Medina neighborhood in March 2013. Social workers and child welfare advocates told Human Rights Watch that seven talibés had died since February 2014, including two hit by cars while begging and another from an untreated tetanus infection at a Quranic school, all in Saint-Louis. Their Quranic teachers returned their bodies to the families but did not report their deaths to the authorities.

In 2010, Human Rights Watch highlighted the deadly risks of begging, documenting four cases of talibés who died from car accidents while begging on the streets of Dakar. None of the men who forced these boys to beg on the street was ever held to account.

Senegal adopted a law in 2005 that prohibits forced begging and trafficking, and its own penal code criminalizes physical abuse and willful neglect of children. While the majority of children sent by parents to Quranic schools are from Senegal, there are also significant numbers of children trafficked from neighboring countries to schools in Senegal where they are forced to beg. But the authorities have failed to enforce these provisions and investigations and prosecutions are extremely rare. The lack of accountability, with the Senegalese state yet to play a regulatory role, may contribute to the rising number of boys enduring this abuse.

The government has taken some steps to address the problem – the Justice Ministry’s anti-trafficking unit completed a census in 2014 of over 1,000 Quranic schools in the Dakar region and trains police and judiciary on the 2005 law. A unit set up in 2008 by the president to support child protection measures (Cellule d’Appui à la Protection de l’Enfance), drafted a law that would regulate the thousands of Quranic schools across the country. However, the National Assembly has yet to adopt the law, due largely to a lengthy consultation process and opposition from Quranic teachers.

After a deadly Quranic school fire in 2013, in which nine children died, President Macky Sall vowed that unsafe schools would be closed down and children returned to their families. However, exploitative Quranic schools have rarely been closed and the teacher responsible for the school fire was never prosecuted or otherwise held to account.

In January 2015, Human Rights Watch visited a “Quranic school” a few hundred meters from the site of the 2013 fire, where today more than 30 boys live in two rooms made of haphazard wooden planks squeezed into a tiny courtyard with precarious electrical wires connected to a nearby electricity pole.

Growing Numbers of Children Subjected to Forced Begging
In January 2015, a Human Rights Watch researcher observed bands of children, dressed in old t-shirts and shorts, often barefoot and dirty, walking city streets of Dakar and Saint-Louis in broad daylight soliciting money and food from passersby, near or right outside public buildings and police stations. Several social workers said they believed the number of children living in the abusive daaras was growing.

A mapping of Quranic schools in the Dakar region by the government’s anti-trafficking unit supported this impression. In 2010 Human Rights Watch estimated that at least 50,000 children were in exploitative and abusive Quranic schools across the country. The government anti-trafficking unit’s mapping in 2014 shows over 30,000 boys in the Dakar region alone are forced to beg for hours each day. Each of Senegal’s 14 regions is home to hundreds if not thousands of Quranic schools, but there is little comprehensive data on the condition and number of schools outside of Dakar.

“It [the talibé problem] is not lessening. We are seeing more and more children on the streets,” said one social worker who has worked for several years at a children’s shelter in Dakar. “The statistics show it is a growing phenomenon. And out of every 20 children we receive at the center, at least 10 are runaway talibés.”

Another social worker who works closely with former and current talibés in Dakar said the economic burden on these children is worsening. “We have started to see now the child is not only exploited by the Quranic teacher, but also by the Quranic teacher’s wife. And when the teacher travels, the petits marabouts [assistant Quranic teachers] force the children to beg double the amount…. Now there are many adults relying on these children.”

He said some children are forced to find up to 2,000 francs CFA (US$3.30) per day, in a country where the average daily wage is $4, and also beg for provisions, such as sugar and uncooked rice, that can then be resold at the Quranic teacher’s gain.

A proliferation of Quranic schools in Senegal also appears to respond to demand from the sub-region. Parents in neighboring countries, notably from Guinea-Bissau, entrust children to men who promise to bring the children to Quranic schools in Senegal for a religious education. Earlier in March 2015, two adults moving 54 children were arrested by Guinea-Bissau authorities near the Senegalese border, allegedly part of a criminal trafficking operation sending children to beg in Quranic schools in Senegal. An official at the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) told Human Rights Watch that child trafficking to Senegal continues to be a major concern.

Continuing Exploitation and Abuse in Quranic Schools
During research in both Dakar and Saint-Louis in January, a Human Rights Watch researcher found evidence of widespread abuses in Quranic schools, including economic exploitation by forced begging, neglect, and severe physical and emotional abuse. The children interviewed described living in a climate of constant fear and often were too tired or ill to focus on studying the Quran. The type of abuse documented in January was consistent with that detailed by previous Human Rights Watch reports in 2010 and 2014.

The fear and abuse force thousands of boys in Quranic schools to flee to a life on the street, where they live a precarious existence and are vulnerable to abuse and exploitation by street gangs and criminals. All the runaway boys interviewed by Human Rights Watch said they chose the street over their families because they knew that if they returned home, they would be sent back to the same Quranic school where further abuse awaited them.

Many of the daaras visited are overcrowded and unsanitary. They are typically in abandoned or partially constructed buildings that offer little protection from rain, heat, cold, or mosquitoes. Several young boys described huddling in rooms so packed that only some of them could lie down to sleep. Another Quranic student described about 50 boys being forced to sleep outside on an open verandah with nothing but their clothes to keep them warm.

Living environments in these schools are unhygienic, and medical conditions and wounds regularly go untreated. Social workers said disease spreads quickly and the children often fall ill – from skin diseases, malaria, and stomach parasites – but that the teachers rarely provide medical care. Instead, many children are forced to beg overtime to find food to eat and to pay for their own medicines.

Issa Kouyaté, a child rights activist who runs a shelter called Maison de le Gare in Saint-Louis, told Human Rights Watch that his organization treats an average of 20 boys every day for infected wounds, physical abuse, and untreated illnesses such as malaria and scabies. Many come for treatment from their Quranic school or have fled their school because of abuse.

In December 2014, a 13-year-old boy who had escaped his school arrived at Maison de le Gare. Social workers who treated him said his body and thin limbs were so badly encrusted with scabies that he could barely move them. He had decided not to go home knowing that his family would have sent him back to the same Quranic school. But life on the streets was just as unforgiving and precarious; he ran from two groups of street boys from whom he had sought protection when older boys in both groups tried to abuse him sexually.

“He was in such a critical condition when he first arrived,” Kouyaté said. “He was traumatized, he would wake himself up in in the night with his own screams. Two other boys came in December 2014 and in March 2015 with infected wounds typical of being shackled at the ankles.”

A 15-year-old boy from Guinea-Bissau described being exploited and abused for several years in his Quranic school before he finally fled in December 2014: “The marabout asked us to bring 600 francs CFA ($1) every day. If I didn’t bring it, the small marabout beat me with electrical wire until I cried. This happened a lot. I would often stay out late at night to find the 600 francs CFA. And if I forgot the lines of the Quran, he also beat me.” In 10 years at the school, he had not yet learned all of the Quran.

A 7-year-old boy said that during the four years at a Quranic boarding school in Mbour, 70 kilometers south of Dakar, before he ran away in December, he suffered regular severe beatings, largely from the teacher’s assistants but also from the teacher himself:

If you are late and have no money, they will beat you. If you do not learn, the grand marabout will ask the petits marabouts to beat you. If you miss a class, they will beat you with the cords used to tie sheep. They put the cord in the fire so it unravels, they bring you into a room, each one takes an arm or a leg and then they beat you for a long time. This has happened to me many times. I saw many boys before me who ran away.

Lack of Investigation and Prosecution
Children’s rights advocates, social workers, and nongovernmental groups in Senegal universally characterized as inadequate the government’s efforts to protect these children from abuse and exploitation. They said state social services, police, and judiciary are not doing enough to report abuses; to investigate physical abuse and neglect, forced begging, and trafficking; and to ensure that the abusers are prosecuted.

“This [issue] continues today, it does not stop,” a child protection officer said. “One daara has almost 1,000 [children]. It is a human catastrophe. They live in unbelievable conditions – unhygienic, abusive, there is sexual abuse. And access is not easy, even for us.” A social worker noted that, “Children are regularly victims of abuses in the daara but no one is acting and it has become routine.”

The forced begging, beatings, and horrific conditions in many exploitative Quranic schools violate Senegal’s obligations under both its own laws and its international obligations. Senegal is party to the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child and the United Nation’s Convention on the Rights of the Child, and all major international and regional treaties on child labor and trafficking, which provide clear prohibitions on the worse forms of child labor, physical violence, and trafficking. International law also affords children the rights to health, physical development, education, and recreation, obligating the state, parents, and those in whose care a child finds himself to fulfill these rights.

Senegalese law requires prosecutors and police to initiate investigations into crimes where there is a credible indication that abuse exists. However, despite the widespread and open nature of the abuse, investigations and prosecutions are extremely rare.

A Justice Ministry official said a lack of reporting abuses to authorities is rooted in the low awareness across Senegalese society about how to handle trafficking and forced begging. The abuses could be prosecuted under two laws.

The first is law no. 2005-06 relating to trafficking in persons and similar practices and to victim protection, or the anti-trafficking law. Article 3 specifically prohibits anyone who “organizes the begging of another in order to benefit, or hires, leads or deceives a person in order to engage him in begging or to exercise pressure on him to beg.” Violations are punishable by two to five years in prison and fines of up to 2,000,000 francs CFA ($4,350). In addition to criminalizing forced begging, the law formally harmonized Senegalese domestic law with the UN Trafficking in Persons Protocol, making trafficking punishable by up to 10 years in prison and a fine of up to $46,520.

The second is article 298 of Senegal’s penal code, which criminalizes physical abuse and willful neglect of children, stating that anyone who “willfully injures or beats a child under the age of 15, or who willfully deprives a child of food or care as to endanger his health, or who commits against a child any violence or assault, except minor assaults,” is punishable by up to five years in prison and a fine of up to 200,000 francs CFA ($435).

In the last 10 years, there have been very few investigations, prosecutions, or convictions of Quranic teachers under either law. Following heightened media attention on child begging in Senegal in 2010, 13 Quranic teachers were convicted for forcing children to beg under the 2005 anti-trafficking law. But 12 were given six-month suspended sentences and fines of $160, well below the minimum penalties.

Since 2010, just one exploitative Quranic teacher has been convicted and sentenced to one month in prison – in January 2014 – under the anti-trafficking law, as Human Rights Watch documented. Similarly, prosecutions of abusive Quranic teachers under article 298 are extremely uncommon. In March 2015, a Quranic teacher in Saint-Louis was convicted under this law for shackling his student by the ankles, and sentenced to six months in prison. Before this case, social workers couldn’t recall the last time this article was used to prosecute or convict a negligent or abusive Quranic teacher. Officials at the Justice Ministry’s anti-trafficking unit said there is no centralized system to record official statistics on cases brought under either law.

Social workers said even fatalities are often not investigated by the authorities, as was the case of two children who died in a Quranic boarding school in Saint-Louis in 2014, and two other children whose bodies were found on a Saint-Louis beach and whom child rights workers in Saint-Louis strongly believe were former talibés.

The Quranic teacher who led the school where nine children burned to death in 2013 was briefly detained, then released without charge.

Human Rights Watch was able to identify just three prosecutions of Quranic school teachers since the beginning of 2014: two rape cases in 2014, resulting in one conviction and one acquittal, and the March 2015 conviction of the Quranic teacher in Saint-Louis.

Social workers, legal experts, and Justice Ministry officials suggested four explanations for the lack of investigations and prosecutions: a lack of political will on the part of authorities to make child protection a priority, an ambiguity in the penal code regarding begging, a lack of reporting, and social pressure from some religious authorities.

Numerous activists believed there was insufficient political will to make protecting children a priority, noting the lack of follow-up by police and child protection authorities into reports they had made about abusive teachers and incidents of abuse. One children’s rights activist said, “I regularly file reports of abuse of talibés to child protection authorities but they do not act on them.”

The lack of funding for the Justice Ministry anti-trafficking unit that is responsible for trafficking, forced labor, slavery, and exploitation, particularly of women and children, is also emblematic of the lack of political will to address the problem. With five staff members and one vehicle, the unit’s permanent secretariat is hindered in efforts to follow and assist with cases of trafficking and forced begging nationwide. One commonly cited priority for this unit is to oversee a national mapping of daaras, which has only occurred in and around Dakar. Furthermore, Senegal has yet to adopt a child protection code that would lay the legal framework on which a targeted national response and local systems could be built to respond to the exploitation and abuse of children.

An ambiguity in Senegal’s legal framework has been an obstacle to practical application of the anti-begging law: article 245 of Senegal’s penal code provides an exception to the prohibition of begging when practiced on cultural or religious grounds. Although the article does not apply to the act of forcing children to beg, the government has made no explicit statements or review of the article to clarify that Quranic teachers who exploit their students are accountable under the 2005 anti-begging law.

Activists, social workers, and a state prosecutor for minors, who is responsible for cases involving children in conflict with the law, told Human Rights Watch that despite the widespread and highly visible evidence of abuse, very few people report incidents and offending Quranic teachers to the police. An official at the state child protection service said they do not report cases of abuse because they are “too common” and so they do not believe the prosecutor will initiate investigations. Officials have a duty to report criminal abuse against children irrespective of the action taken as a result. Authorities also have an obligation to investigate abuse and neglect even when it is not reported to them.

Several activists told Human Rights Watch that investigations and court proceedings are often preempted by social pressure from religious leaders and Quranic teachers, including the alleged abusers. In a few cases, Quranic teachers, who serve as a child’s ad-hoc guardian, exert pressure on the victims during the judicial process. A state prosecutor described a 2014 case against the son of a Quranic teacher accused of raping one of his father’s students, in which the Quranic teacher threatened the child in the courtroom:

At the 2014 [rape] case, the Quranic teacher said in front of everyone in Wolof, “I will beat you,” before the child went to testify. The child changed his story and the case was dropped for lack of evidence. It is very problematic that in the absence of parents, the marabout is the child’s legal guardian.

There have been some accomplishments however. In February 2013, the government created a detailed action plan to eradicate child begging by 2015 and in December 2013 the government validated a detailed National Child Protection Strategy specifically mentioning forced begging and calling for allocation of the necessary resources to implement the strategy. In the introduction, Prime Minister Aminata Touré expressed frustration that economic exploitation and abuse of children persists and reveals a “true problem of governance as much in design as in steering public policy in favor of children.”

Regulating Quranic Schools
A 2013 draft law to regulate Quranic schools and its five implementing decrees would require the schools to adhere to minimum standards, to submit to state inspections, and to formally give up the practice of begging to get government subsidies. A draft seen by Human Rights Watch in January 2015 would also require all Quranic schools to adhere to pedagogic standards so that students would also receive an elementary level education in French or Arabic. Activists cited a lengthy and opaque consultation process and opposition to parts of the draft law, particularly by Quranic teachers, as explanation for the National Assembly’s delay in passing the law.

Over half of the Quranic schools in the Dakar region are traditional daaras that teach only the Quran and provide no other literacy, language, or elementary education, according to the government mapping. Under the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child, the state is obliged to ensure that children have access to a compulsory, holistic primary education.

“The draft regulatory law needs to be passed to ensure the minimum standards of protection apply to thousands of unregulated Quranic schools,” Dufka said. “But while the pros and cons of the draft law are being discussed, thousands of children endure unspeakable abuse. Senegal has strong laws that the authorities – police and prosecutors – need to apply to remove these boys from a nightmare of forced begging and abuse.”

The draft law has been welcomed by human rights activists for providing a framework by which the government can fulfill Quranic students’ right to education, but the lack of a comprehensive and meaningful consultation with Quranic school teachers at a grassroots level has hampered efforts to formulate a law that can be effectively applied. Child protection specialists also voiced concerns that the implementing decree for monitoring of Quranic schools does not provide local authorities with clear criteria for when they must close a Quranic school.

Human Rights Watch spoke to several Quranic teachers, none of whom were opposed to regulation in principle, but who were either unaware of the contents of the draft law or were opposed to certain parts of the text of the law or its implementing decrees.

“You need to encourage a consultation at the regional level, involving local administrative leaders and Quranic school teachers,” said Chérif Diop, who works closely with Quranic school teachers at the community level. “Then come to the ministry and discuss. Otherwise the law will never be applied.”

When the law is adopted, implementing it will be an enormous job. Identifying, inspecting, and holding to account several thousand Quranic schools across the country will take time and resources. The Education Ministry’s Daara Inspectorate, tasked with leading the regulation of Quranic schools, has just eight full-time staff members who would work with school inspectors across 14 regions.

Current budgetary support does not account for the extra capacity and resources needed to close schools that violate the law’s standards and find appropriate shelter for children while mediating their return to their families.

“We commend the spirit of the draft law that will regulate the daaras and ensure a bridge to formal education for Quranic students,” Wane said. “But today, we must prioritize the fight against forced begging and abuse of the talibé in Senegal.”

Recommendations

To the Government:

  • Enforce the anti-trafficking and forced begging law (law no. 2005-06) by ensuring the police, prosecutors, and social services report, initiate, and pursue cases of children forced to beg;
  • Enforce article 298 of the penal code, which criminalizes the physical abuse and neglect of children, including by investigating and holding to account Quranic teachers and others who physically abuse talibés;
  • Issue a statement to all relevant state officials clarifying that the act of forcing children to beg, including by Quranic teachers, is subject to prosecution and not exempted by penal code article 245;
  • Formulate a detailed child protection code, based on Senegal’s National Child Protection Strategy, outlining case management methodology for vulnerable children, including talibés, defining criteria for evaluating what constitutes a child in a “state of danger,” and providing protection and representation mechanisms for child victims in social welfare and judicial systems;
  • Ensure that the Daara Inspectorate has the human and financial resources to conduct adequate inspections of all Quranic schools nationwide;
  • Ensure that Quranic schools that violate children’s rights are closed down, and, in coordination with nongovernmental groups, ensure that children from abusive schools are placed in temporary shelters while their families are traced and mediation efforts are undertaken so they can be returned to their parents;
  • Facilitate a widespread, inclusive, and transparent consultation on the draft law, and its implementing decrees, at the local level, involving Quranic teachers, civil society groups, local authorities, and technical experts, and consider their recommendations; and
  • Ensure that the Justice Ministry’s anti-trafficking unit has the resources and capacity to fulfil their mandate, including conducting a nation-wide mapping of Quranic schools.

To the National Assembly:

  • Pass the draft law relating to regulation of Quranic schools and any implementing decrees.

To International Donors:

  • Consider providing increased support to enable the Justice Ministry’s anti-trafficking unit to conduct a national mapping of Quranic schools; and
  • Consider providing increased budgetary support for the Education Ministry’s Daara Inspectorate to lead a more comprehensive consultation at the domestic regional level on the draft law to regulate Quranic schools, and to inspect and monitor implementation of minimum standards in Quranic schools nation-wide.