We write in advance of the 95th pre-session of the Committee on the Rights of the Child and its review of Senegal. This submission focuses on barriers to realizing the right to education, including for pregnant girls and adolescent mothers, as well as school-related sexual and gender-based exploitation and violence. It also includes information on abuse and exploitation of talibé children and the protection of education from attack during armed conflict.
Barriers to the Right to Education (articles 19, 24, 28, 29, and 34)
Human Rights Watch welcomes the commitment of the Senegalese government to expand the provision of primary and secondary education to more young people, including by exceeding the international benchmark of allocating over 20 percent of its national budget to education in the period 2017-2020. However, our 2017-2018 research on barriers to secondary education shows that the government had made inadequate progress in the retention of girls in school, and that it did not provide free basic education. Moreover, although Senegal’s 2004 law on education states that compulsory education shall be free from 6 to 16 years of age, our findings show that secondary education was not free in practice.
In 2017, we spoke to over 150 adolescent girls who were in and out of school, and conducted interviews with parents, teachers, village leaders, government officials, and local and national experts. We found that secondary school students may be required to pay close to 40,000 CFA (US$75) in tuition fees, furniture costs, and extra tuition for afternoon classes, forcing many children to drop out. Alongside school fees and indirect costs, gender discrimination contributes to low rates of retention and completion of compulsory lower secondary education, particularly in rural areas. In some communities, parents prioritize boys’ education over that of girls. Girls are also disproportionately expected to work on domestic chores—preparing food, cleaning the household, taking care of younger siblings—which reduces the time they can dedicate to studying outside school hours.
Pregnancy as a Barrier to Education
In 2007, the Senegalese government adopted a “re-entry” policy for young mothers, overturning its previous position to expel pregnant girls from school. The policy stipulates that girls will be suspended from school until delivery and can go back upon presentation of a medical certificate stating they are physically able to resume their studies.
Overall, teenage pregnancy rates remain high across the country: From 2004 to 2020, the adolescent birth rate was 68 per 1,000 adolescent girls and women aged 15-19.
Many girls interviewed by Human Rights Watch in 2017 did not know they could become pregnant the first time they had sexual intercourse. The government had been reluctant to adopt a national comprehensive sexuality education curriculum. In 2018, we found that this might be due to concerns that teaching sexuality contradicts Senegal’s cultural and moral values, as well as pressure from religious groups.
Most public secondary schools in the regions where Human Rights Watch conducted research did not provide adequate, comprehensive, and scientifically accurate content on sexuality or reproduction. In most schools, abstinence remained the leading message. Some of the teachers who led extra-curricular spaces provided students with some information about contraception, on the basis that this information will only be applied once students get married.
School-Related Sexual and Gender-Based Exploitation and Violence
Human Rights Watch research conducted in 2017 in Senegal’s regions of Kolda, Sédhiou, Ziguinchor, and Dakar exposed the oft-underreported practice of school-related sexual exploitation, harassment, and abuse, primarily perpetrated by teachers and school officials.
We found that many girls had been exposed to sexual exploitation, harassment, and abuse by teachers and other school staff. Some teachers abused their position of authority by sexually harassing girls and engaging in sexual relations with them, many of whom were under 18 at the time. Senegal does not have a minimum age of sexual consent, but, in the view of Human Rights Watch, the inherent power imbalance and threat of dire consequences for not agreeing to sexual relations excludes meaningful consent by students, and means that such exploitation should be seen as serious abuse and, in some cases, constituting criminal behavior, including rape. Teachers lured girls with the promise of money, good grades, food, or items such as mobile phones and new clothes. Female students—and to a certain extent, teachers and school officials—characterized this as “relationships” between teachers and students. We believe that this type of characterization undermines the gravity of the abuse, leads to underreporting of the problem, and blurs perpetrators’ and victims’ perception of the severity of these abuses.
Students are particularly vulnerable to abuse and harassment on the way to school, around teachers’ homes, as well as during students’ evening gatherings, which are sometimes organized on school premises.
When girls turned down teachers’ proposals, they sometimes found that the teachers punished them for rejecting their advances by awarding them lower grades and ignoring and not letting them participate in class discussions or exercises. In some of the areas where Human Rights Watch conducted research, the low retention rate of girls in secondary schools appeared linked to fear that girls would be exposed to sexual harassment and gender-based violence in school, or that girls would be at high risk of pregnancy because of the school environment.
Talking about sexual exploitation, harassment, and abuse is considered a taboo topic for many girls. Education about the full spectrum of offenses, or how to prevent and report sexual exploitation, harassment, or abuse is scarce, and had not been part of a national effort.
Inadequate Reporting Mechanisms
In 2018, Human Rights Watch found that girls who had been harassed, exploited, or abused by teachers or other adults had limited options to confidentially report an incident. The education system lacked an adequate confidential reporting system. Victims of abuses were reluctant to report cases within schools because of the lack of confidentiality, fear of reprisals, and a feeling that no actions would be taken. Some students told Human Rights Watch they would not seek help from their principals or teachers because they felt their claims would be dismissed.
We found that education officials often did not act on or report to their own supervisors cases of sexual exploitation or harassment that had been brought to their attention. For example, we collected evidence that suggests that teachers who have sexually exploited students in the context of “relationships” usually do not face serious legal sanction or professional sanction. Their behavior is sometimes tolerated; at most, they are reprimanded or warned by their peers or the principal, with no further consequences.
Although the government has taken steps to tackle sexual violence and gender-based discrimination in schools as part of broader efforts to increase girls’ access to, and retention in, secondary education, as of 2018, it still needed to adopt a national policy to prevent and tackle all forms of school-related sexual violence. Programs covering teenage pregnancies, girls’ empowerment, and prevention of sexual abuse remained contingent on donors’ financial support and had failed to address widespread sexual exploitation in schools.
Legal and Policy Framework
Senegalese legislation does not specifically stipulate a minimum age for sexual consent. The country’s penal code does not include a specific criminal offense for anyone who has sexual relations with children under 18. Most sexual offenses cover acts of sexual abuse of children under 16. Moreover, the penal code does not include a specific offense for omitting to report a sexual offense committed against a child.
Human Rights Watch recommends that the Committee ask the government of Senegal:
- How many pregnant girls have returned to school after giving birth since the beginning of the reporting period?
- What steps are being taken to tackle barriers that lead to low retention of girls in school, including school fees, indirect costs, and gender discrimination, particularly in rural areas?
- What measures will the government adopt to fully support pregnant students and adolescent parents’ return and retention in school?
- What actions are being taken against teachers and educational staff who are found to be engaging in sexual exploitation, harassment, or abuse?
Human Rights Watch also recommends that the Committee ask the government of Senegal to:
- Adopt a policy to make secondary education fully free of charge.
- Officially and in practice remove school fees and indirect costs in secondary education.
- Adopt an unconditional continuation policy that allows students who are pregnant, mothers, and/or married to continue their education while pregnant and after giving birth.
- Adopt a national education policy against sexual exploitation, harassment, and abuse, which includes: guidance on what constitutes or could lead up to these abuses, procedures to be adopted when cases are reported to school staff, clear school-based enforcement mechanisms and sanctions, and referrals to police.
- Ensure that legislation relating to school-related sexual exploitation, harassment, and abuse are rigorously enforced, and that perpetrators of these crimes are brought to justice and punished with sanctions that are commensurate to their crimes.
- Explicitly prohibit all forms of sexual and gender-based violence against girls and young women in and around educational institutions.
- Ensure all schools have functioning confidential and independent reporting mechanisms, connected to child protection committees.
- Adopt a strong curriculum on sexual and reproductive health and rights which complies with international standards, is mandatory, age-appropriate, and scientifically accurate; including information on sexual and reproductive health and rights, responsible sexual behavior, and prevention of early pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections.
- Amend and/or adopt laws to strengthen protection for children affected by abuse. In particular, amend the penal code to include:
- A provision that specifies the minimum age of consent to sexual activity, equal for all children, in accordance with international human rights norms and best practice.
- A specific criminal offense for an adult who has sexual relations with children under the minimum age of consent.
Abuse and Exploitation of Talibé Children (articles 6, 11, 19, 24, 27, 28, 32, 34, 35, and 37)
Human Rights Watch estimated in 2019 that over 100,000 talibé children (Quranic students) attending Senegal’s still-unregulated residential Quranic schools (daaras) are forced to beg for food, money, rice, or sugar by their Quranic teachers (marabouts), who serve as their de facto guardians. Thousands of these children live in conditions akin to slavery, forced to endure often extreme forms of abuse, neglect, and exploitation. We have documented dozens of cases of abuses committed against these children by Quranic teachers or their assistants, including children’s deaths from beatings, neglect, or endangerment; severe beatings; chaining and imprisonment; rape and other sexual abuse; and neglect leading to deprivation of their rights to nutrition, health care, education, and a safe and nurturing living environment. Many daaras are housed in decrepit or unfinished buildings without water, sanitation, electricity, or security, exposing the children to health and safety risks.
During 2017-2018, Human Rights Watch documented the deaths of 16 talibé children, 61 cases of beatings or physical abuse, 15 cases of actual or attempted rape or sexual abuse, and 14 cases of children imprisoned, tied, or chained in the schools. We also documented cases of trafficking and illicit transport of groups of talibé children across country borders without identification or parental authorization; cases of talibés abandoned by their marabouts or parents; and how hundreds of children ended up in the streets or in shelters each year after fleeing abusive daaras. Since our 2019 reports, abuses against talibés have continued. In January 2022, a 10-year-old talibé died of his injuries in Touba after being beaten by his Quranic teacher.
While the Senegalese government has made efforts to address child begging and expand its child protection interventions in recent years, inconsistencies in programming and the limited reach of justice have failed to protect talibés from abuse or deter forced child begging on a wider scale.
Senegal has strong domestic laws against child abuse, neglect, endangerment, and exploitation, but these are rarely enforced against Quranic teachers, squandering potential for deterrence. While more cases of abuse and exploitation by Quranic teachers were adjudicated in 2017-2019 than in prior years, the total remained small in proportion to the widespread nature of past and current abuses, and obstacles to justice persisted. The police often still failed to investigate cases of the exploitation of begging, social workers failed to report cases, and charges against Quranic teachers continued to be dropped or sentences reduced by the judiciary.
On the programmatic side, Senegalese authorities have taken the positive steps of providing social assistance to some daaras and talibés and constructing several public “modern daaras.” Additionally, during several phases of a government program implemented periodically since 2016 (le retrait des enfants de la rue, or the “retrait”), police and social workers have “removed” children from the streets. However, the program remained limited in scope, with several shortcomings—notably the failure to incorporate deterrence by way of judicial investigations and prosecutions, preventing widespread or durable impact. Between 2016-2018, two phases of the program resulted in the removal of more than 1,800 children (including over 1,300 talibés) from the streets of Dakar; yet Human Rights Watch found that more than 1000 children were later returned to the same Quranic teachers who had forced them to beg. Separate from the “retrait” program, in November 2017, Senegalese police and Interpol picked up over 54 children including 47 talibés from the streets in Dakar, arresting five Quranic teachers for child trafficking and exploitation. This was a positive step that incorporated the missing element of justice, but it was not replicated in the subsequent “retrait” program phase in 2018. The government reportedly continued the “retrait” program in 2020 and 2021.
Between 2016 and 2019, and again in 2022, Human Rights Watch observed that there was no noticeable reduction in the number of talibés begging in the streets of Senegal’s major cities, with the exception of two Dakar municipalities where mayors had issued decrees banning begging and took steps to close several daaras that did not comply. We have also documented how child protection services in Senegal are critically under-resourced and often overwhelmed by talibé runaways or abuse victims.
A 2013 draft law on the legal status of daaras, which would incorporate daaras into the national education system and increase oversight of these schools, was approved in June 2018 by the Council of Ministers; but as of late 2022, it had not been brought to a vote before the National Assembly.
Human Rights Watch recommends that the Committee ask the government of Senegal:
- What steps are being taken to increase investigations and prosecutions of any Quranic teachers and their assistants who perpetuate abuses against talibé children?
- Why has parliament not yet passed the draft law on the status of daaras, in order to set official standards for these schools and incorporate them into the national education system?
- In what regions so far, other than Dakar, has the government carried out programs to address child begging and remove children from the streets (retrait des enfants de la rue)? What plans does the government have to expand these efforts to other regions?
Human Rights Watch recommends that the Committee ask the government of Senegal to:
- Increase enforcement of current domestic laws that criminalize child abuse, willful neglect, sexual abuse of children, wrongful imprisonment or sequestration, endangerment, and human trafficking (including the “exploitation of begging”); and investigate and hold accountable Quranic teachers who violate these laws.
- Pass the draft law establishing legal status and regulations for daaras (projet de loi portant statut du daara).
- Involve relevant sectors of the Ministry of Justice (including the social services agency, AEMO) as well as public prosecutors in any future phases of the program to remove children from the streets (retrait des enfants de la rue), with a view to ensuring investigations and prosecutions of anyone found to be forcing children to beg for profit or committing other abuses.
- Mandate local-level hygiene and safety inspections of existing daaras, with a view to ensuring that any failing to meet appropriate health and safety standards are shut down.
- Increase funding and support to child protection services (including AEMO, and CPA shelters—Centres de Premier Accueil) that provide emergency and legal assistance to separated children such as talibés who are victims of abuse or exploitation. This should include building the capacity of existing children’s shelters and care centers, as well as installing new shelters or care systems in regions that lack facilities to care for abused or separated children.
Protection of Education from Attack (article 28)
The Safe Schools Declaration is an inter-governmental political commitment that provides countries the opportunity to express political support for the protection of students, teachers, and schools during times of armed conflict; the importance of the continuation of education during armed conflict; and the implementation of the Guidelines for Protecting Schools and Universities from Military Use during Armed Conflict. Senegal endorsed the declaration in August 2019.
In October 2020, the African Committee of Experts on the Rights and Welfare of the Child issued a general comment on children and armed conflict in Africa, in which they stated that “all State Parties should either ban the use of schools for military purposes, or, at a minimum, enact concrete measures to deter the use of schools for military purposes in accordance with the Safe Schools Declaration’s Guidelines on Protecting Schools and Universities from Military Use during Armed Conflict, including through their legislation, doctrine, military manuals, rules of engagement, operational orders, and other means of dissemination to encourage appropriate practice throughout the chain of command.” In January 2021, the African Union began requiring countries contributing troops to its peace operations to “ensure that schools are not attacked and used for military purposes.”
As of October 2022, Senegal provides 1,136 personnel to United Nations peacekeeping missions. The 2017 Child Protection Policy of the UN Department of Peace Operations, Department of Field Support, and Department of Political Affairs notes: “United Nations peace operations should refrain from all actions that impede children’s access to education, including the use of school premises. This applies particularly to uniformed personnel. Furthermore … United Nations peace operations personnel shall at no time and for no amount of time use schools for military purposes.”
Senegal’s peacekeeping troops are deployed in the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Mali — all countries where attacks on students and schools as well as the military use of schools has been documented as a problem.
Human Rights Watch encourages the Committee to:
- Congratulate Senegal for endorsing the Safe Schools Declaration.
- Ask the government of Senegal whether protections for schools from military use are included in any policies, rules, or trainings for Senegal’s armed forces, and in particular, whether pre-deployment training for Senegalese peacekeepers includes the ban on using schools in military operations.
- Recommend that the government incorporate the declaration’s standards in domestic policy, military operational frameworks, and legislation, and share any good practices with other countries in the African Union, including countries contributing African troops.
 Global Partnership for Education, “Annonce de contribution du SENEGAL pour la période 2017-2020,” https://www.globalpartnership.org/sites/default/files/annonce-contribution-senegal-3e-conference-financement-gpe-2018.pdf (accessed January 18, 2023).
 Human Rights Watch, “Open Letter for President Macky Sall on Free Secondary Education in Senegal,” January 25, 2018, https://www.hrw.org/news/2018/01/25/open-letter-president-macky-sall-free-secondary-education-senegal.
 République du Sénégal, “Loi 2004-37 du 15 Décembre 2004 modifiant et complétant la loi d’orientation de l’Education nationale n. 91-22 du 16 Février 1991,” http://www.ilo.org/dyn/natlex/docs/SERIAL/75283/78245/F1277535961/SEN-75283.pdf (accessed January 18, 2023), art. 3 bis.
 Human Rights Watch, “It’s not Normal”: Sexual Exploitation, Harassment and Abuse in Secondary Schools in Senegal (New York: Human Rights Watch, 2018), https://www.hrw.org/sites/default/files/report_pdf/senegal1018_web.pdf, p. 15.
 République du Sénégal, Ministère de l’Education Nationale, Circulaire no.004379/ME/SG/DEMSG/DAJLD, October 1, 2007, available at Human Rights Watch, “A Brighter Future: Empowering Pregnant Girls and Adolescent Mothers to Stay in School,” Index, 2022, https://www.hrw.org/video-photos/interactive/2022/08/29/brighter-future-empowering-pregnant-girls-and-adolescent.
 UN Population Fund, “World Population Dashboard – Senegal,” https://www.unfpa.org/data/world-population/SN (accessed January 18, 2023).
 Agence de Presse Sénégalaise (Dakar), “Sénégal: Harcèlement sexuel à l'école - Le ministère de l'Education réfute le rapport de HRW,” Octobre 19, 2018, https://fr.allafrica.com/stories/201810190724.html (accessed January 25, 2023).
 Human Rights Watch, “It’s not Normal,” p. 57.
 Human Rights Watch interview with Yahya Colly Thieto, officer, Groupe pour l’Etude et l’Enseignement de la Population, Dakar, July 24, 2018.
 Human Rights Watch, “It’s not Normal.”
 Ibid., p. 47.
 Ibid., p. 37.
 This Committee has recommended that states introduce an acceptable minimum legal age for sexual consent, by taking “into account the need to balance protection and evolving capacities,” and to include a “legal presumption that adolescents are competent to seek and have access to preventive or time-sensitive sexual and reproductive health commodities and services.” States should also “avoid criminalizing adolescents of similar ages for factually consensual and non-exploitative sexual activity.” Committee on the Rights of the Child, “General comment No. 20 (2016) on the implementation of the rights of the child during adolescence,” CRC/C/GC/20, December 6, 2016, paras. 39-40.
 Human Rights Watch, “It’s not Normal,” p. 20.
 Despite the re-entry policy, more than 54 percent of young mothers dropped out of school between 2011 and 2014 according to a joint UNFPA-GEEP study. Fifteen percent of young mothers resumed their education in that same period. UN Population Fund and Groupe pour l’Etude et l’Enseignement de la Population, “Sénégal : Etude sur les grossesses précoces en milieu scolaire,” June 2015, https://senegal.unfpa.org/fr/publications/s%C3%A9n%C3%A9gal-etude-sur-les-grossesses-en-milieu-scolaire, p. 64.
 Human Rights Watch and la Plateforme pour la Promotion et la Protection des Droits Humains (PPDH), “There Is Enormous Suffering”: Serious Abuses Against Talibé Children in Senegal, 2017-2018, June 11, 2019, https://www.hrw.org/report/2019/06/11/there-enormous-suffering/serious-abuses-against-talibe-children-senegal-2017-2018.
 Amnesty International, “Senegal: The State must move from commitment to strong action to protect talibé children,” December 12, 2022, https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2022/12/senegal-letat-doit-passer-des-engagements-aux-actes-forts-pour-proteger-les-enfants-talibes/.
 Human Rights Watch and PPDH, “These Children Don't Belong in the Streets:” A Roadmap for Ending Exploitation, Abuse of Talibés in Senegal, December 16, 2019, https://www.hrw.org/report/2019/12/16/these-children-dont-belong-streets/roadmap-ending-exploitation-abuse-talibes.
 Human Rights Watch and PPDH, “These Children Don't Belong in the Streets” (December 2019); Human Rights Watch, “I Still See the Talibés Begging”: Government Program to Protect Talibé Children in Senegal Fall Short (New York: Human Rights Watch, 2017), https://www.hrw.org/report/2017/07/11/i-still-see-talibes-begging/government-program-protect-talibe-children-senegal.
 Lauren Seibert (Human Rights Watch), “A Move Toward Justice for Senegal’s Exploited Talibé Children,” commentary, All Africa, December 6, 2017, https://www.hrw.org/news/2017/12/06/move-toward-justice-senegals-exploited-talibe-children.
 Human Rights Watch and PPDH, “These Children Don't Belong in the Streets” (December 2019).
 Press Afrik, “Dakar : « entre avril et novembre 2020, plus de 5 300 enfants ont été retirés de la rue », affirme Niokhabaye Diouf,” May 10, 2021, https://www.pressafrik.com/Dakar-entre-avril-et-novembre-2020-plus-de-5-300-enfants-ont-ete-retires-de-la-rue--affirme-Niokhabaye-Diouf_a231846.html; Le Quotidien, "#Mbour – 6 500 enfants retirés de la rue : 90% sont retournés en famille," July 14, 2021, https://lequotidien.sn/mbour-6-500-enfants-retires-de-la-rue-90-sont-retournes-en-famille/.
 Human Rights Watch and PPDH, “These Children Don't Belong in the Streets” (December 2019) and “There Is Enormous Suffering” (June 2019); Human Rights Watch observations in Dakar and St. Louis, Senegal, November 2022.
 Amnesty International, “Senegal: The State must move from commitment to strong action to protect talibé children.”
 Safe Schools Declaration, May 28, 2015, https://www.regjeringen.no/globalassets/departementene/ud/vedlegg/utvikling/safe_schools_declaration.pdf (accessed January 18, 2023).
 Guidelines for Protecting Schools and Universities from Military Use during Armed Conflict, March 18, 2014, http://protectingeducation.org/sites/default/files/documents/guidelines_en.pdf (accessed January 18, 2023).
 The Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack (GCPEA), “Safe Schools Declaration Endorsements,” 2023, https://ssd.protectingeducation.org/endorsement/ (accessed January 18, 2023).
 African Committee on the Rights and Welfare of the Child, General Comment on Article 22: Children in Armed Conflict, (2020), para. 59.
 African Union, Peace and Security Department, “International Day to Protect Education from Attack: Joint Statement by African Union Commission’s Department of Political Affairs, Peace and Security (PAPS); Department of Health, Humanitarian Affairs and Social Development and Save the Children International,” September 9, 2021, https://www.peaceau.org/en/article/international-day-to-protect-education-from-attack-joint-statement-by-african-union-commission-s-department-of-political-affairs-peace-and-security-paps-department-of-health-humanitarian-affairs-and-social-development-and-save-the-children-international (accessed November 2, 2022).
 United Nations Peacekeeping, “Troop and Police Contributors,” https://peacekeeping.un.org/en/troop-and-police-contributors (accessed January 18, 2023).
 UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations, Department of Field Support and Department of Political Affairs, “Child Protection in UN Peace Operations (Policy),” June 2017.
 Education Under Attack: 2022, The Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack, 2022, https://protectingeducation.org/wp-content/uploads/eua_2022.pdf.