(Dakar) – Political parties and candidates for Senegal’s February 24, 2019 presidential election should commit to ending the abuse and exploitation of talibé children, Human Rights Watch and the Platform for the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights (PPDH), a coalition of Senegalese rights groups, said today.
Hundreds of thousands of talibé children in Senegal live in residential Quranic schools, or daaras, with the teacher as their de facto guardian. While many respect the rights of children under their care, others operate their daaras as businesses under the pretext of religious education. More than 100,000 talibés in Senegal are forced to beg daily for food or money in towns and cities across Senegal. Thousands live in conditions akin to slavery, suffering from abuse, neglect, and exploitation.
“Why is the government capable of fighting terrorism, but not the child begging and modern slavery that is happening in plain sight?” said Mamadou Wane, president of PPDH. “The state can and must do more to protect talibé children from exploitation and abuse. The elections are an opportunity to highlight a roadmap for doing that in the years ahead.”
Human Rights Watch and PPDH have documented scores of cases of abuse against talibés since 2010, including boys who have been severely beaten for failing to deliver the requested sum of money, chained or tied up for attempting to run away, or in some cases, beaten to death. In the coming weeks, the groups will release a report analyzing government efforts related to the talibés and documenting numerous cases of physical and sexual abuse, and child deaths, in 2017 and 2018.
The Senegalese government has emphasized economic development and education, among other areas, but has allocated minimal resources to improve the situation for talibé children. Even as the $2 billion futuristic city of Diamniadio nears completion, tens of thousands of talibé children live in squalid daaras in abandoned or unfinished buildings across the country.
While Senegal has strong domestic laws banning child abuse, endangerment, human trafficking, and “the exploitation of begging,” prosecution of the abusers and actions to protect talibés have remained limited.
In June 2016, Sall ordered “the urgent removal of children from the streets” and promised “sanctions” against those forcing children to beg. However, the resulting program to “remove children from the streets” has been limited to Dakar, with no accompanying investigations or prosecutions. While arrests and prosecutions of abusive Quranic teachers have increased nationally, investigations or charges were dropped or reduced in a number of cases.
A draft law to set standards and regulations for daaras to be officially recognized and eligible for funding was approved by the Council of Ministers in June 2018, but still awaits a National Assembly vote.
Despite some government efforts, there is no evidence that rates of forced begging or abuse against talibés have reduced. As recently as January, Human Rights Watch observed scores of talibés – often shoeless, dirty, or sick – begging in Dakar, Louga, and Saint-Louis, often directly in front of law enforcement officers or government buildings. In addition to the cases Human Rights Watch documented, judicial officials and social workers in multiple regions said they receive dozens of talibé abuse victims and runaways every year.
State child protection services – such as children’s centers and social services offices – suffer from minimal resources and personnel, and are often overwhelmed. Some regions have no shelters for separated or abused children. As a result, dozens of vulnerable children including talibés fail to receive the care, protection, or legal assistance they need.
As the elections near, Senegalese activists and journalists have increasingly denounced the lack of political will to end abuses against talibés. One analyst wrote: “Why is Senegal, a democratic country, a stakeholder in many international legal instruments for the promotion and defense of human rights, still practicing human trafficking, especially of children? …Will the political class have the maturity to reach a national consensus to bring all the children of Senegal out of the street…?”
During a December 18 round table for people from government and nongovernmental groups involved in child protection, PPDH challenged presidential candidates “to impose a political agenda focused on the best interests of the child,” urging “acceleration of the processes to adopt the law on the status of daaras and to remove children from the streets.”
In a January 22 open letter to the presidential candidates, the Association of Senegalese Jurists noted “the imperative need to take into account the situation of the rights of women and children in their programs for the presidential election.” Regarding “the situation of children in the street,” the group said the candidates should explain the “the provisions [they] intend to implement for the effective enforcement of the  Anti-Trafficking Law, Article 245 of the Penal Code, and adoption of the draft Law on the Status of Daaras and the Children’s Code, in order to protect children from forced begging and to allow them free access to quality education.”
Senegal’s presidential candidates should clearly outline the steps they plan to take to crack down on abuse and exploitation of talibé children. In particular, candidates should commit to:
- Facilitating passage of the draft law to regulate daaras;
- Supporting efforts to investigate and hold to account those Quranic teachers or parents who knowingly expose talibés to exploitation, abuse, or other dangers to their lives;
- Enforcing the closure of daaras that put children at risk;
- Making grants available to daaras that do not practice begging and that fully respect children’s rights to health, adequate standard of living, and quality education;
- Building emergency children’s centers in regions lacking such facilities; and
- Increasing the resources and personnel of existing child protection services, including children’s centers and regional offices of the “Educational Action and Social Protection” (Action éducative et de la protection sociale en milieu ouvert, AEMO) social services agency.
“Senegal’s government has made some efforts to protect talibés, but nothing will change for the thousands of talibé children suffering exploitation or abuse without stronger commitments from political leaders,” said Corinne Dufka, associate Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Presidential candidates and their political parties should let the population know exactly how they plan to instigate real change for talibés.”
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