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Talibés begging in downtown Dakar, Senegal, May 11, 2017.  © 2017 Lauren Seibert/Human Rights Watch

(Dakar) – Tens of thousands of talibé children in Senegal continue to suffer from forced begging and abuse at certain traditional Quranic schools, despite a year-long government program intended to crack down on the practice, Human Rights Watch and the Platform for the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights (PPDH), a coalition of Senegalese rights groups, said in a report released today.

The 40-page report, “‘I Still See the Talibés Begging:’ Government Program to Protect Talibé Children in Senegal Falls Short,” examines the successes and failings of the first year of the new government program to remove children forced to beg from the streets. The report documents the ongoing abuses faced by many talibé children in Dakar and four other regions during – and despite – the program, including pervasive forced begging, violence and physical abuse, chaining and imprisonment, and sexual abuse. Human Rights Watch and the PPDH also assessed the ongoing challenge of ensuring justice for these abuses.

“While it’s a step in the right direction, Senegal’s program to remove children from the streets has hardly made a dent in the alarming numbers of talibé children exploited, abused and neglected each and every day,” said Corinne Dufka, associate Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “To deter abuse and to address this pervasive problem at its core, the government should ensure that abusive teachers face penalties or prosecution.”

The groups urged the government to strengthen the program as it enters its second year, to investigate and prosecute abusive teachers, and to establish a legal framework to regulate the traditional Quranic boarding schools, also known as daaras. Candidates for the July 30 National Assembly elections should put children’s rights at the front and center of their campaigns. The new Assembly should work to end forced begging and expedite passage of the draft law regulating daaras.

Talibé children attending exploitative daaras are hardly difficult to find. One runaway talibé in Dakar, around 8 or 9 years old, told Human Rights Watch that in his former daara, “We begged for money and rice. The marabout [Quranic teacher] asked for 400 CFA [US$0.70] each day. On Wednesday, it was 500 CFA, [US$0.85], to pay the rent and electricity,” he said. “If we didn’t bring the money, or if we didn’t recite the verses, the marabout would beat us.”

The report is based on extensive interviews from January to June 2017 with current and former talibé children, Quranic teachers, Senegalese activists, government officials, social workers, aid workers, and UN officials. It follows a July 2016 report, “Senegal: New Steps to Protect Talibés, Street Children,” and reports in 2015, 2014 and 2010 documenting abuses against talibés.

Across Senegal, an estimated 50,000 talibé children living in daaras are forced by their Quranic teachers to beg daily for money, rice, or sugar. The talibés often live in conditions of extreme squalor, in many cases subject to physical or psychological abuse amounting to inhuman and degrading treatment.

By no means is every daara exploitative or abusive. Many Quranic teachers respect the rights of the children in their charge. However, many others operate their schools as businesses under the pretext of teaching the Quran.

From April to June, Human Rights Watch observed hundreds of talibés living in squalid daaras and begging in plain sight in the cities of Dakar and Saint-Louis. The children – in many cases shoeless, coated in dirt, their clothing in tatters, suffering from skin infections, and appearing malnourished – often begged in front of police and gendarmes, near government buildings and along busy highways.

Launched in June 2016 in Dakar, the government’s program to crack down on forced child begging, known as the “withdrawal of street children,” has achieved some success. By March 2017, 1,547 children had been removed from the streets of Dakar, with several hundred returned to their families.

However, more than 1,000 of the children identified as talibés were ultimately returned to the same Quranic teachers who had sent them begging in the first place. The government opened no formal investigations into the teachers involved, no one was arrested, and no official inspections were conducted to ascertain the living conditions at the daaras.

“The state never went to see if the child was placed back in a good daara or not,” said Imam Elimane Diagne, president of Senegal’s Daara Modernization Collective and member of PPDH. “In some of those daaras the conditions are not good… the children sleep on the ground. There are diseases like scabies. Some have no water and no latrines... And aside from all that, the child continues to beg.”

Officials involved in the program told Human Rights Watch in May that they had decided to stop returning talibé children to daaras, but it is not clear whether this has been implemented as a formal protocol. Officials said children were returned to daaras as recently as April.

During the first month of the program, activists and aid workers observed a dramatic drop in children begging. However, the failure to investigate and prosecute abusive teachers led to a return of the status quo.

In the year since the new program began, Human Rights Watch also documented the deaths of two talibés allegedly as a result of abuse in Quranic schools; five cases of actual or attempted sexual abuse by Quranic teachers or assistants; and 28 cases in which talibés were beaten, chained, or imprisoned in daaras. The abuses occurred in Dakar and four other regions.

The government should ensure that no child picked up while begging is returned to any Quranic school that has violated the rights of the child through forced begging or other abuses, Human Rights Watch and PPDH said. The Ministries of Family, Justice, and the Interior should strengthen coordination to facilitate investigations and prosecutions of Quranic teachers found to be abusing or exploiting children. All children living in abusive daaras should be removed immediately and returned to their families or placed in appropriate alternative care.

“We can wait no longer to stop the exploitation and abuse of talibés, the most vulnerable sector of our population,” said Mamadou Wane, president of PPDH. “Now is the time to end this massive violation of children’s rights in Senegal, which continues in plain sight. We are all responsible. We all have an obligation to act collectively, with the state at the front line.”

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