Severe abuse, exploitation, and neglect of children known as talibés continue at alarming rates in many of Senegal’s Quranic schools, Human Rights Watch and the Platform for the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights (PPDH), a Senegalese coalition of rights groups, said in a report released today.
The 71-page report, “‘There Is Enormous Suffering’: Serious Abuses Against Talibé Children in Senegal, 2017-2018” documents the deaths of 16 talibé children during that period from beatings, neglect, or endangerment by certain teachers in residential Quranic schools, known as daaras. The report also documents abuses against talibés in 8 of Senegal’s 14 regions, including 61 cases of beatings or physical abuse; 15 cases of actual or attempted rape or sexual abuse; 14 cases of children imprisoned, tied, or chained in the schools; and widespread forced begging and neglect.
President Macky Sall, reelected in February 2019, should use his second term to carry out large-scale, concrete measures to protect the tens of thousands of talibé children living in Senegal’s still-unregulated daaras, Human Rights Watch and PPDH said.
“Talibé children are filling the streets, suffering horrific abuse, and dying from abuse and neglect,” said Corinne Dufka, associate Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Senegalese authorities say they are committed to protecting children and ending forced child begging, so why are so many abusive, exploitative, or dangerous daaras still operating?”
Human Rights Watch and PPDH visited four regions of Senegal during 2018 and 2019 and interviewed over 150 people in person or by phone, including 88 current and former talibés, 23 Quranic teachers, and dozens of social workers, child protection experts, government officials and others. The groups observed and spoke with scores of talibé children – many as young as 5 years old – begging on the streets of Dakar, Saint-Louis, Diourbel, Touba, and Louga. Researchers visited 22 residential daaras and 13 children’s centers and shelters, finding numerous runaway talibé children who described abuse and forced begging.
The abuses have continued into 2019. In February, an 8-year-old talibé who lingered at night in the Saint-Louis bus station – reportedly out of fear of returning to his daara without the begging quota demanded by the Quranic teacher – was sexually assaulted by a teenager. In April, a Quranic teacher was arrested in Mbour following the death of talibé child, allegedly due to a beating.
While many Quranic teachers in Senegal do not force children to beg and respect their rights, others continue to abuse and neglect their charges. Human Rights Watch estimates that over 100,000 talibé children in Senegal are forced by their Quranic teachers – also known as marabouts – to beg daily for money, food, rice, or sugar. Many set begging quotas enforced with often-severe beatings.
In total, 63 of the 88 talibés interviewed for the report said that their Quranic teacher forced them to beg for a daily quota ranging from 100 to 1,250 francs CFA (US $0.20-$2.20). Human Rights Watch and PPDH observed scars or wounds on several children who reported abuse.
“I didn’t like the daara because they hit us all the time – if we didn’t memorize the verses of the Quran, or if we didn’t bring money,” said a 9-year-old talibé, who fled his daara in Dakar to escape abuse in 2018. “At the daara, they beat you until you think you will die.”
Children reported being tied, chained, or imprisoned in cell-like rooms in daaras, sometimes for weeks or months, as punishment. “If we tried to run away, the marabout would chain us by both legs, so we couldn’t move,” said a 13-year-old talibé who ran away from a daara in Diourbel region. Social workers and officials recounted assisting children who fled daaras with chains still on their feet. The majority these cases took place in Diourbel and Saint-Louis regions.
Cases of sexual abuse and rape of both male and female talibé children by Quranic teachers or their assistants – older talibés – were documented in Dakar, Saint-Louis, Diourbel, Kaolack, and Fatick regions. A boy of around 15 years old, who had fled his daara in Diourbel region, described witnessing sexual abuse of younger talibés by the older ones. “If they didn’t [comply], the older talibés would beat them. The victims were around 11 years old,” he said.
Many children observed in the streets and in the 22 daaras visited had visible infections or illnesses but had not received medical treatment. Among the daaras visited, 13 provided little or no food to the children; many housed children in squalid, decrepit, or abandoned buildings – often with no working latrines, soap, or mosquito nets to protect children from malaria.
Some daaras are so poorly constructed and supervised that they put children at high risk of death or injury by fires. The report documents fires in four daaras in 2017 and 2018, with all but one causing deaths or injuries when children were trapped inside while their teacher was away.
The groups also found human trafficking and dangers linked to talibé migration, including illicit transport of groups of talibé children across regions or country borders, talibés abandoned in distant cities, and children who end up in the streets after fleeing abuse. Some parents perpetuate these practices by repeatedly returning children to abusive daaras.
Senegal has strong domestic laws banning child abuse, endangerment, and human trafficking, but limited actions have been taken to protect talibés and prosecute their abusers. A forthcoming Human Rights Watch report will assess Senegal’s policy, programming, and judicial efforts in 2017 and 2018 to address forced child begging, unsafe living conditions, and other abuses in daaras – proposing a “roadmap” for the new government to protect talibé children and instigate lasting change.
With the International Day of the African Child approaching on June 16, the Senegalese government should take urgent action to protect talibé children from abuse and forced begging, bring those responsible to justice, and inspect and regulate daaras, Human Rights Watch and PPDH said. The government should also strengthen regional child protection services and make funding available to daaras that prioritize education and respect children’s rights.
“With his new mandate, President Sall has the opportunity to make a lasting impact on thousands of children’s lives by protecting talibés from exploitation and ending abuses in certain so-called daaras,” said Mamadou Wane, president of PPDH. “The enormous suffering of children in these pseudo-daaras must come to an end.”