Across Senegal, an estimated 50,000 boys living in traditional Quranic boarding schools, or daaras, are forced to beg for daily quotas of money, rice or sugar by their Quranic teachers, known as marabouts. Children in these daaras are often beaten, chained, bound, and subjected to other forms of physical or psychological abuse amounting to inhuman and degrading treatment.
In June 2016, the government demonstrated meaningful political will by introducing a new program to “remove children from the streets” (known in French as the “retrait des enfants de la rue,” or the “retrait”), intended to crack down on forced child begging. Over the first year of the program, headed by the Ministry of Women, Family and Children (“Ministry of Family”), police and social workers led over 60 street operations that picked up more than 1,500 children found begging in Dakar. The children were placed in shelters, in most cases the government-run Ginddi Center, while their parents or guardians were traced and warned about the laws prohibiting forced child begging and exploitation.
However, one year later, the program has hardly made a dent in the alarming numbers of children subjected to exploitation, abuse and neglect daily. Hundreds of the children picked up from the streets were returned to the very Quranic teachers who had forced them to beg in the first place, officials involved in the program told Human Rights Watch. The impact of the program was further undermined by the government’s insufficient allocation of resources and lack of coordination with other ministries and actors in the sphere of child protection.
More broadly, the program failed to trigger investigations or prosecutions of Quranic teachers implicated in forced begging and other abuses. Despite promises of sanctions by the president and the minister of Women, Family and Children, not a single Quranic teacher was arrested or prosecuted for forcing talibé children to beg during the first year of the program, which was carried out exclusively in the Dakar region.
In the month following the program’s launch, aid workers, rights activists, and government officials observed a dramatic drop in the presence of children begging in both Dakar and Saint-Louis. However, the failure to investigate and prosecute abusive teachers ultimately led to a return of the status quo. “Honestly, in June and July 2016 there were fewer children in the streets,” said Etienne Dieng, manager of Ginddi Center. “But when the teachers saw that there would not be punishments, they started to send children back into the streets.”
Based primarily on interviews and observations in Senegal between April and June 2017, on accounts of victims of abuses and others, and on other information from secondary sources, including credible media reports, this report examines the successes, challenges and failings of the first year of the program. It documents the ongoing abuses faced by talibé children in Dakar and four other regions since the “retrait” was introduced, including forced begging, violence and physical abuse, chaining and imprisonment, sexual abuse, and rape. The report also discusses the ongoing challenge of ensuring justice for these abuses, highlighting the key steps identified by Senegalese civil society and many government officials to ending the widespread exploitation and abuse of young boys at certain Quranic schools.
In the course of conducting research for this report, Human Rights Watch observed hundreds of talibés living in squalid daaras and begging in plain sight in the cities of Dakar and Saint-Louis, often in front of police and gendarmes, near government buildings and along busy highways.
In the year since the program’s launch, at least two talibés were killed allegedly as a result of abuse in Quranic schools, according to news reports and sources interviewed by Human Rights Watch. In the same period, Human Rights Watch documented five cases of actual or attempted sexual abuse by Quranic teachers or their assistants, as well as 28 cases of talibés beaten, chained, or imprisoned in their daaras – in four cases for a period of one to two years. These abuses occurred in the regions of Dakar, Saint-Louis, Louga, and Diourbel.
From May to June 2017, Human Rights Watch and the Platform for the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights (PPDH), a coalition of 40 Senegalese children’s rights organizations, observed hundreds of children living in squalid, unsanitary daaras in Dakar and Saint-Louis. Nineteen of the 43 current and former talibé children Human Rights Watch interviewed on the streets and in children’s shelters said that they are beaten if they fail to study, try to run away, return late to the daara, or fail to bring back daily quotas. Several marabouts interviewed in Quranic schools admitted to beating their talibés for the same reasons.
In the northern city of Saint-Louis, Human Rights Watch and social workers from the children’s shelter Maison de la Gare encountered a 9-year-old talibé hunched over in pain at the bus station around 1 a.m., his T-shirt pulled over his head. Tears streaked the child’s face as he described the severe beating he had received, administered by the Quranic teacher’s assistant, after failing to meet the daily quota. “I didn’t give the grand talibé my payment, so he beat me with a stick. He also did it to four other talibés,” he said. Open wounds and scars from previous beatings marked the child’s back. 
Over the past year, the government’s “retrait” program achieved some impact. According to the Ministry of Family, 1,547 children – including 1,089 identified as talibés – were withdrawn from the streets of Dakar between June 2016 and March 2017. At least 450, including 83 talibés, were returned to their families.
However, the Ministry of Family and the children’s shelters ultimately returned more than 1,000 talibés to their Quranic teachers without any official inspection to ascertain the living conditions at the daaras or any formal investigation of teachers for forcing the talibés to beg.
“To pick up children and then return them to the Quranic teachers – that’s just undoing all the work,” said the coordinator of a children’s shelter.
Officials involved in the “retrait” program told Human Rights Watch that a decision was made to cease 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 2017.
As the program enters its second year, Human Rights Watch and PPDH call on the government to 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.
During the “retrait,” the ministries of Family, Justice and the Interior should strengthen coordination so as to better 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 if no family members can be found.
Senegal has ratified all major international conventions on children’s rights. Its penal code criminalizes physical abuse and willful neglect of children, and a 2005 law prohibits forced begging and human trafficking. However, a law drafted in 2013 to establish legal status and regulations for daaras had yet to be passed at the time of writing.
Human Rights Watch, PPDH, and other Senegalese civil society activists call on the Senegalese government to strengthen the “retrait” program, investigate and prosecute abusive Quranic teachers, and pass the draft law to establish a legal framework to regulate the Quranic schools.
This report is based primarily on a two-week research mission to Senegal’s Dakar and Saint-Louis regions in April and May 2017, a one-week research mission to Dakar in June 2017, and phone and email interviews conducted with sources in the regions of Dakar, Saint-Louis, Diourbel, Louga, and Thiès from January to June 2017. Research assistance was provided by members of la Plateforme pour la Promotion et la Protection des Droits Humains (PPDH) in Senegal. Some information was obtained from credible media reports.
Human Rights Watch interviewed more than 90 people in total to assess the extent of ongoing abuses in Quranic schools, trends regarding the presence of children in the streets, and the effectiveness of current government efforts to address forced begging, unsafe living conditions, and other abuses in certain Quranic boarding schools. Interviewees include 43 talibé children, ages 5 to 18, and 14 Quranic teachers. Interviews were conducted in the streets, in five children’s shelters, and in 17 Quranic schools. Human Rights Watch also interviewed 40 Senegalese civil society activists, social and aid workers, experts in human trafficking and child protection, representatives of the United Nations, and government officials in the ministries of justice, family, and the interior.
Interviews were mostly conducted individually, and in the presence, in some cases, of Senegalese civil society activists who knew and introduced the interviewee to Human Rights Watch. Occasionally, an interpreter assisted in interpreting between French and either Wolof or Pulaar during interviews with talibés and Quranic teachers. Human Rights Watch did not offer interviewees any incentive, and they were informed that they could end the interview at any time. Throughout the report, names and identifying information of some interviewees, including current and former talibés, have been withheld to protect their privacy. Some people spoke on the condition of anonymity, out of fear of repercussions for voicing criticisms.
This report builds on four previous Human Rights Watch reports. “Off the Backs of the Children”: Forced Begging and Other Abuses against Talibés in Senegal (2010) provides a more detailed account of the history of Quranic education in Senegal, the rise of exploitation and abuse in certain schools, and the experiences of young boys in such schools. Human Rights Watch published three subsequent reports in 2014, 2015, and 2016.
The terms “Quranic school” and “daara” are used throughout the report to refer to the unregulated, traditional and informal Quranic boarding schools in which talibé children live and study. Many Senegalese civil society activists and religious authorities routinely refer to the abusive and exploitative daaras as “so-called Quranic schools” or “self-proclaimed Quranic schools,” to distinguish them from the thousands of daaras where children do not beg, are well cared for by the Quranic teacher, and receive a strong religious and moral education. However, because the places present themselves as “Quranic schools”—and the children do spend some time learning the Quran, even if significantly less than they spend on the street begging—it remains the most appropriate terminology.
The terms “Quranic teacher” and “marabout” are used interchangeably throughout this report, reflected common parlance in Senegal, though it should be noted that some Quranic teachers do not consider themselves “marabouts.”
The term “talibé” is used in this report to refer to children and young adults studying at a traditional Quranic school (“daara”). Many talibés live at the daaras, though some do study at the schools during the day and live elsewhere. “Grand talibé” is used to refer to an older talibé, typically age 17 or older, who serves as the Quranic teacher’s assistant.
Thousands of children from regions across Senegal and from neighboring countries, notably Guinea-Bissau, Gambia and Guinea, are regularly sent to daaras in Senegal’s major cities. Rooted in the widespread West African cultural tradition of “confiage”—entrusting one’s child to another adult to raise—and combined with overpopulation, poverty and the importance placed on learning the Quran, the daara system has become deeply and increasingly entrenched. The Quranic teachers, entrusted with dozens or even hundreds of talibé boys, serve as unofficial guardians and often transport the children hundreds of miles away from home. Girls also study at daaras but to a far lesser extent. The majority of female Quranic students do not beg and do not live at the daaras.
Many of these teachers, or marabouts, do respect the rights of the children in their charge. However, in many other cases the so-called “teachers” use Quranic “education” as a pretext for exploitation. Such teachers set up daaras in abandoned or unfinished buildings in conditions of extreme squalor. Medical conditions and wounds regularly go untreated; even deaths sometimes go unreported. The children’s days consist of Quranic studies alternated with long hours of begging on the streets for food or money.
A 2014 mapping led by the government’s anti-trafficking unit found that over 30,000 talibés were forced to beg in the Dakar region alone, and a 2016-2017 census documented over 14,000 begging talibés in Saint-Louis. Considering that each of Senegal’s 14 regions is home to hundreds of daaras, which operate completely outside any official regulatory framework, the total number of talibés forced to beg in Senegal is likely even higher than the 50,000 estimate made by Human Rights Watch in 2010.
Few talibés receive any formal education at these daaras beyond memorizing the Quran. Lessons are often punctuated by corporal punishment, and failure to bring back daily quotas of money can result in severe beatings. The boys typically suffer severe malnutrition, while the hours on the street undermine their ability to study and put them at risk from car accidents and physical or sexual abuse.
Such daaras violate the children’s rights to protection from abuse and the worst forms of child labor, in addition to their rights to basic health care, education, rest and recreation. The physical abuse and terrible conditions drive hundreds of children to run away from their daaras each year. While many children in the streets are current or runaway talibés, social workers have also noted an increasing number of street children who have run away from their families due to violence or other problems, as well as children begging with a family member.
Government Program to Remove Children From the Streets
Senegal has come under considerable international—and, increasingly, national—pressure to stop the widespread abuses and exploitation of talibé children. On June 22, 2016, President Macky Sall announced to the Council of Ministers his intention to end the phenomenon of child begging. He followed this with two posts to Twitter on July 1: “To protect the rights of vulnerable children and groups, I ordered the urgent withdrawal of street children,” he wrote. “To save the talibés, the state imposes fines and jail sentences for those putting their children in the street.”
The program, known in Senegal as the “retrait des enfants de la rue,” or the “withdrawal of street children,” was rolled out in Dakar during the first year, with the other regions to follow. Though condemned by a number of religious leaders, the initiative was widely welcomed by Senegalese civil society, rights activists and diplomats. According to the Ministry of Family, the objective of the “retrait” was to “end the phenomenon of street children in the Dakar region with a view to protecting them from all forms of exploitation and promoting their social welfare.”
While the program was designed to assist all street children, it was understood to have been specifically intended to address the widespread forced begging and exploitation of talibés. Nonetheless, the program did not incorporate measures to address the many other serious abuses perpetrated inside certain daaras, nor did it ensure information collected during the program was used to support investigations or prosecutions.
The program was designed to address the social welfare aspects of the problem at various levels, including removing the children physically from the streets, reuniting them with their families, educating parents or guardians on the laws banning child begging, and providing social support to families and guardians to ensure the children would not be returned to the streets.
However, children’s rights activists viewed this as an incomplete strategy to address such a complicated and entrenched problem. They noted that the initiative should have been accompanied by a commitment and strategy to investigate and prosecute teachers forcing children to beg, along with passage of the law drafted in 2013 that would establish a regulatory framework for daaras.
Three government structures currently manage the “retrait”: the Ministry of Family’s Child Rights Directorate (Direction des Droits, de la Protection de l'Enfance et des Groupes Vulnérables, DDPEGV), at the head; Ginddi Center, the state-run children’s shelter in Dakar, responsible for processing and returning the children to their families and guardians; and the Juvenile Justice Unit (Brigade des Mineurs) of the National Police, in charge of leading the street operations and interviewing the children’s parents or guardians.
On June 30, 2016, just days after the president’s announcement, the Ministry of Family and the Juvenile Justice Unit commenced operations. A typical operation consisted of a team – police officers from the Juvenile Justice Unit, a security agent, and social workers from Ginddi or the DDPEGV – driving a bus around Dakar to collect children seen begging in the street, whether they were alone or accompanied by a relative. Several hundred children were picked up in the month of July 2016 alone.
In some cases, children who attempted to run away were forced into the bus, as captured in a video and denounced by several humanitarian workers. Some social workers, aid workers, and civil society activists described the methods as occasionally “brutal” or “brusque,” fearing the tactics had further traumatized the children. A police spokesman for the Juvenile Justice Unit emphatically denied these allegations.
Once on the bus, the children were delivered to Ginddi Center or one of two private children’s centers selected to assist with the program, Yakaaru Gune Yi and SOS Village d’Enfants. Human Rights Watch visited both Ginddi and Yakaaru Gune Yi, where the children appeared healthy and well cared for. Both centers looked clean and well maintained, and both appeared to provide the children with food, medical care, shelter, and educational or recreational activities.
During 66 street operations conducted from June 2016 to March 2017, 1,547 children were removed from the streets. Of these children, 440 were accompanied by a family member who had also been begging. The 1,107 unaccompanied children included 1,089 talibés, Ginddi and the DDPEGV reported to Human Rights Watch.
The children typically remained at these centers for several weeks while background investigations and family tracing were conducted. The police summoned the children’s parents, guardians, or Quranic teachers to the Dakar Central Police Station, where they were interviewed, educated on the 2005 anti-trafficking law, and warned not to send the children begging. The adult then proceeded to the center to recover the child. Tracing and returns of children hailing from other regions or countries were conducted by the humanitarian organization Enda Jeunesse Action, via the West Africa Network for Child Protection.
Children Returned to Daaras
The most serious problem with the “retrait” program was the sheer number of children returned to the care of the Quranic teachers who had subjected them to forced begging in the first place. The government published a report in March 2017 stating that 1,456 of the children had been “returned,” and the media has reported this as “returned to their families.” This is a mischaracterization, as 1,006 children picked up during the street operations and brought to Ginddi Center were in fact returned to their Quranic teachers, who then took them back to the daaras.
A government official and a social worker involved in the returns of the children justified this decision to Human Rights Watch by saying that for “the majority” of the talibés, the Quranic teacher was “family” – uncle, father, or cousin. Based on the research Human Rights Watch and PPDH conducted with dozens of talibés and marabouts, it seems highly unlikely that over 1,000 talibés picked up from the streets were all directly or even indirectly related to their Quranic teachers.
Not only were the talibés returned to their Quranic teachers, but up to 85 of these daaras also received money or supplies from the Ministry of Family when they came to recover the child. Sixteen daaras whose talibés were picked up from the streets received grants totaling around 950,000 CFA each (US$1,600), according to information obtained from the Ministry of Family.
Government workers implementing the program told Human Rights Watch that they took the child’s opinion into consideration, only returning a talibé to his daara if he voiced a desire to return.
While international standards on child protection and separated children stipulate the importance of the child’s opinion and participation in decisions particularly as they approach the age of 18, the ultimate consideration should always be the best interest of the child. A very young child does not have the capacity to understand the circumstances surrounding his return to the daara. The child may fear retribution from his teacher if he does not return; he may not even remember life prior to the daara, if he was entrusted to the marabout at a very young age. After only days or weeks at the center, “of course the child is going to say he wants to go back to the daara – that’s all he knows,” said a U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) director who worked extensively on talibé projects in Senegal.
Etienne Dieng, manager of Ginddi Center, noted that the center has been overwhelmed with the number of children brought in during the “retrait,” and while they felt it was not the best strategy to return the talibés to their daaras, the staff at Ginddi felt they had little choice. Dieng said the government had originally “thought that if they warned the marabouts, they wouldn’t do it again.” Unfortunately, after several months, “evaluations found that the same children were back in the streets again,” he added.
Imam Elimane Diagne, a Quranic teacher, president of Senegal’s Daara Modernization Collective, and member of PPDH, said that he was aware of several children who were returned to daaras in the Pikine suburb of Dakar which he knew to have extremely unhygienic conditions, run by marabouts who continue to force their talibés to beg. He told Human Rights Watch:
The state never went to see if the child was placed back in a good daara or not… In some of those daaras the conditions are not good. They are in zones that flood when it rains, so the ground is damp, which spreads germs and disease. At some of these daaras, 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.
In order to ensure children’s rights are respected, Human Rights Watch believes that no talibé children should be returned to any daara that had sent them begging in the first place. Considering that over 1,000 children picked up for begging were returned to their daaras, it is even more concerning that the vast majority of these daaras were never inspected, either before or after the return of the child, and none were officially investigated for forced begging.
The only Quranic schools visited by government officials during the year-long program were several of the 16 daaras selected to receive grants in 2016.  These visits were neither systematic nor conducted for purposes of investigation prior to returning the children.
When questioned about the lack of inspections to determine the level of abuse taking place at a given daara, personnel from each of the three government structures deflected responsibility, suggesting a lack of clear guidance and protocols on how the program should be implemented. A police official stated they had not received orders to visit or investigate daaras; officials from the DDPEGV and Ginddi Center both said that they lacked the personnel, time, or financial means to conduct such visits on a systematic basis. Each suggested that one of the other structures should have done so.
Insufficient Investigations, Prosecutions for Forced Begging
Numerous members of civil society and several government officials working in the area of child protection told Human Rights Watch they were disappointed that the “retrait” program had failed to result in increased investigations or prosecutions of abusive marabouts. Many characterized the lack of sanctions as a missed opportunity to deter abusive teachers.
Dr. Mody Ndiaye, permanent secretary of the government’s national anti-trafficking unit, told Human Rights Watch that failure to prosecute abusive Quranic teachers for forced begging is a weakness of the “retrait” program. “There are no ‘good’ and ‘bad’ daaras if they practice begging,” Ndiaye said. “A ‘good’ daara does not force children to beg. This is a violation of the 2005 anti-trafficking law and very harmful to vulnerable children.”
Despite existing laws banning the practice, both police and justice officials interviewed by Human Rights Watch justified their failure to investigate and prosecute forced begging in several ways. Some said they had received no specific instructions from higher authorities to do so; all said they had insufficient time, funding or personnel. Some also cited the daunting pervasiveness of forced begging and the lack of facilities to handle all the talibés if they were removed from such daaras. 
Child protection workers in Saint-Louis and Dakar reported that immediately after the President’s declaration a year ago, Quranic teachers had rushed to the police stations to ask for details of the program, clearly fearful of penalties or prosecution. However, as the months passed and no sanctions were applied, this fear – and respect for the ban on forced begging – dissipated, and talibés returned visibly to the streets.
Many believed there had been insufficient involvement of the Ministries of Justice and the Interior during the first year of the “retrait” initiative, which contributed to the lack of investigations into child exploitation and abuse.
According to the DDPEGV, the Ministry of Family sent letters requesting increased engagement in the “retrait” to the Ministries of Justice and the Interior. The Minister of Justice reportedly responded by sending a letter to prosecutors and/or presidents of Dakar’s tribunals, instructing them to accompany the “retrait” with investigations and prosecutions. Human Rights Watch was unable to obtain a copy of the letter in order to verify these instructions. The Ministry of Family said they had received no response from the Ministry of the Interior.
“The President announced his decision to withdraw all children from the streets at the Council of Ministers in June 2016,” said Mamadou Wane, president of PPDH. “It is therefore up to each sector of the State to implement this decision immediately. There is no need for any other administrative correspondence in order to act.”
Role of the Police
Human Rights Watch and PPDH also expressed concern with the failure of the Ministry of the Interior to ensure sufficient police participation in the “retrait” program, as well as the failure of the police to enforce existing law by investigating marabouts who had forced their talibés to beg or committed other abuses, with a view to referring the teachers to the public prosecutor.
During the first year of the “retrait,” despite the 2005 law criminalizing forced begging, despite President Sall’s promise to “impose fines and jail sentences” for those sending children to beg, and despite scores of interactions between the police and Quranic teachers, not one single case of a marabout forcing the children under his care to beg was either investigated at the daara by the police or transmitted to the judiciary, who themselves could launch an investigation. When asked why not, a police official told Human Rights Watch, “Begging… it’s complex. We need instructions in order to proceed.”
According to the police official, written instructions to participate in the “retrait” were sent from the Director General of the National Police and the Director of Public Security to all the police services in Dakar. The police official described the orders as follows: to participate in the operations to remove children from the streets; to identify the children; to interview the responsible adult; and to direct the adult to Ginddi Center to pick up the child. No instructions were given to investigate daaras, make arrests, or administer fines or other sanctions, he said.
The police official said he met with over 100 Quranic teachers whose children had been picked up off the streets, as well as many other family members, from July 2016 to March 2017. The purpose of these meetings was to obtain information about the child, to explain the 2005 anti-trafficking law, and to issue a warning not to send the child out begging again. The Quranic teachers were not required to sign any agreement committing them to desist from forcing talibés to beg. 
The police official told Human Rights Watch that the “large majority” of Quranic teachers he interviewed admitted to sending their talibés begging, for both food and money. “Their response was that they did it, but only because of necessity, because they had no resources,” he said; the marabouts routinely justified their actions by claiming that “the parents contributed nothing for the child.”
When the “retrait” program was first announced, police across Dakar—and even, some civil society activists reported, in other regions across Senegal—begun to participate in the “retrait.” However, the other police services gradually stopped participating in the initiative. For the majority of the past year, only the Vices Unit (“Brigade des Moeurs”), which totals only 9 personnel and includes the Juvenile Justice Unit, has participated in the street operations of the “retrait.”
Human Rights Watch was informed by child protection experts and civil society activists in early 2016 of the Ministry of the Interior’s intention to install special offices for minors’ affairs in every central police station across Senegal. At the time of writing, no such offices were operational.
Insufficient Funding and Resources
Following the President’s declaration on ending child begging made to the Council of Ministers in June 2016, the Ministry of Family proposed a budget of 14 billion francs CFA (US$24 million) for a national program to end child begging, and a budget of 2.89 billion CFA ($5 million) for the “pilot phase” in Dakar region. According to the DDPEGV, the program has thus far received but a fraction of that: a total of 141 million CFA (US$240,000) in funding – 100 million CFA from the president, 33 million CFA from the Economic Community of West African States, (ECOWAS), and 8 million CFA from the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF).
Ginddi Center, which has a maximum capacity of 80 children, reported that they did not receive any additional funding from the government for the “retrait” to accommodate the surcharge of children they received, though the DDPEGV contributed some supplies and provided two additional staff for a short period. The Juvenile Justice Unit of the Police was not allocated any additional funding or personnel from the Ministry of the Interior.
Niokhobaye Diouf, the director of the DDPEGV, largely faulted Senegal’s development partners for their lack of support to the program. He told Human Rights Watch in a written statement:
The president of the republic has repeated four times…his will to put an end to the exploitation of street children by begging. A program framework has been proposed to technical and financial partners for funding, but it has not yet been implemented. The plan for the withdrawal [of children from the streets] has not been consistently supported by partners since the start of its implementation. There is a strong political will of the State that is not supported by international cooperation.
Nevertheless, a critical number of daaras have returned to their place of origin; others have drastically reduced their numbers [of talibés]. The initial results showed that it was possible to eradicate child begging, but the challenge of mobilizing resources remains in order to sustain the operations, to ensure accompanying measures, to conduct a behavior change communication campaign, and to ensure regular case monitoring; not to mention multilateral cooperation between Senegal’s border countries to manage child mobility.
In April, May and June 2017, Human Rights Watch observed hundreds of children begging in the streets of Dakar and Saint-Louis, evidence that the key objectives of the “retrait” had hardly been met. As in past years, the majority of the children were dirty and appeared malnourished, their clothing in tatters. They carried a yellow begging bowl or tomato can to collect coins, rice, sugar, and anything else they received while begging. Many had no shoes, appeared ill, or suffered from skin infections.
The children were observed approaching pedestrians as well as cars in the middle of busy traffic to beg – on four occasions, directly in front of gendarmes regulating traffic. On five separate occasions, Human Rights Watch encountered large groups of 13-18 talibés, often from the same daara, begging together.
Numerous children’s rights activists, members of civil society, and humanitarian workers told Human Rights Watch that the number of children begging had only diminished during the first month of the initiative, in July 2016, when many Quranic teachers still feared sanctions. They said many marabouts instructed their talibés to avoid the “retrait” operations and hide from police. For example, “They hid in different neighborhoods, wore cleaner clothes, and used bags instead of begging bowls,” explained the coordinator of a children’s shelter in Dakar.
After a few months, and in the face of government’s failure to investigate and prosecute offending Quranic teachers, the situation returned to the status quo. “There are even more children begging in the streets of Dakar now. And in the suburbs of Dakar and other cities across Senegal, absolutely nothing has changed,” said Mamadou Wane, who described routinely seeing large groups of talibés begging.
During a visit in May, Human Rights Watch encountered a group of 18 talibés, ages 6 to 15, begging near a popular bakery in Dakar. The older boys explained they had all been brought from Guinea-Bissau to the same daara in Dakar. Several were holding baguettes they had been given, which they said were for the marabout. 
In addition to the state-run Centre Ginddi, Human Rights Watch visited four other centers providing assistance and shelter to at-risk children, including talibés and other street children. These centers are run by humanitarian organizations – in Saint-Louis, La Maison de la Gare; in Dakar, Yakaaru Gune Yi, Empire des Enfants, and Samu Social Sénégal. Personnel at all four children’s centers in Dakar told Human Rights Watch that based on their observations, the numbers of children in the streets have not diminished.
“Here in Ouakam [district of Dakar], every morning I still see talibé children begging – in front of the stores, in front of the Brioche Dorée, in the Ouakam market, at the entrance to Ouakam,” said the coordinator of the Samu Social center. “You can also find many talibés in Mamelles [district]. In Nord Foire [district], I have the impression that the children forced to beg in the streets are again very numerous; the children are begging there from the day to the night.”
Of the 43 current and former and talibé children interviewed by Human Rights Watch in April and May, 37 spoke of being forced to beg or were observed begging. Twenty three children said they were forced to bring quotas from 100 to 1,000 francs CFA, and 19 said they had been beaten at their daaras for not meeting these quotas. On three occasions when visiting a daara, Human Rights Watch observed the whip used to beat the children – usually a wooden baton with a rope attached.
On May 12, Human Rights Watch spoke with three talibés begging on the streets of Dakar who were observed to be in terrible physical condition. The children, ages 7, 8 and 9, were from Kolda, in the south of the country. They appeared extremely thin and malnourished. The two youngest had no shoes; one had a skin infection on his head, and the other had infected wounds on his legs. They needed to find 1,000 CFA for the marabout, they said. If they did not bring it, they would be beaten. The youngest child at first refused to go to the clinic to get his wounds treated; the other talibés explained this was because he had not yet collected 1000 CFA.
All five children’s centers visited by Human Rights Watch reported that a large percentage of the children they assisted in 2016 and 2017 were current or former talibés. Of the 278 children received at the Empire des Enfants center in 2016, the majority (182) were talibés who had left their daaras. From January to June 2017, the center took in 108 new children, of which 78 were talibés. Alassane Diagne, coordinator of the Empire des Enfants center, told Human Rights Watch: “98% of these talibé children we took in had been forced to beg. Every talibé that we questioned claimed to have been beaten by his marabout or by the other assistants at the daara, whether for failing to contribute the daily quota or failing to recite verses of the Quran.”
Samu Social, a humanitarian organization that provides shelter and medical, social and psychological assistance to street children, said that around half (248 of 506) of the children newly identified in the streets in 2016 had at some point attended a Quranic school. In the first five months of 2017, they said, 68 out of 198 children had attended Quranic schools. Yakaaru Gune Yi Center, located in Guédiawaye, Dakar, sheltered 12 children at the time of Human Rights Watch’s visit, including 9 talibés ages 6 to 15. Ginddi Center hosted 35 children, including 29 talibés, at the time.
“We returned hundreds of talibés to their families in 2016,” said a staff member at Maison de la Gare. “Sometimes the parents cried when they saw the state their child is in now.”
Alassane Diagne, coordinator of Empire des Enfants, recounted the story of a child the center had helped return to his family in Guinea-Bissau in late 2016:
The talibé was from a village in Guinea-Bissau… Someone went to the village and said he was from Dakar, that he had learned the Quran. He said, ‘If you give me your children I will teach them the Quran.’ The villagers didn’t know any better – for them Dakar is a good place to send a child… These children ended up begging in the streets. The father had a friend here who saw his son begging and called him… so he came to get his son. He had no idea that his child was in this condition – dirty, sick, begging; and he had learned nothing… This is child trafficking, to take a child 1,000 kilometers away and force him to beg for money, and to beat him if he doesn’t bring it.
Some of the Quranic teachers interviewed by Human Rights Watch said they would not send the children begging if they had the resources to feed them. Others claimed simply that begging was a rite of passage for the talibés, an essential part of Quranic studies. “My own father sent me out begging like my talibés do,” said a marabout in Saint-Louis whose talibés begged three times a day. “It’s the education of the street… you have to complete it in order to understand life.”
The talibés interviewed in the streets and at children’s shelters put it differently. “In the daara, it’s education in violence only,” said a 16-year-old former talibé in Dakar.
In many traditional Quranic schools, violence, corporal punishment, imprisonment, and other abuses have become a part of daily life. In some cases, the abuse is so severe that it has led to the child’s death. Such abuses, documented by Human Rights Watch, have remained pervasive and ongoing in Dakar, Saint-Louis, and many other regions across Senegal over the past year, even as the “retrait” initiative was carried out in Dakar region.
In the year since the “retrait” began, at least two talibés died as a result of alleged abuse in Quranic schools in regions across Senegal, according to media reports and sources interviewed by Human Rights Watch. One child died in a fire in December 2016, after his teacher left him chained up in a daara in Louga region. Another talibé was allegedly beaten to death in March 2017 by a Quranic teacher’s assistant in Diourbel region.
A staff member at Yakaaru Gune Yi center recounted a traumatic experience witnessed by one of the talibés treated at their center in 2016: “Last year, a talibé from Yeumbeul [district in Dakar] saw a talibé beaten to death and buried, so he was traumatized and ran away.” The Quranic teacher was arrested last year and the case is currently still under investigation.
In addition to the 9-year-old talibé whose back was covered in wounds from a beating in Saint-Louis, Human Rights Watch observed two other talibés with wounds and documented dozens of other cases of physical abuse in 2017 in both Saint-Louis and Dakar. “If I didn’t bring 300 CFA, the teacher would beat me with a cord,” said a 10-year-old talibé in Dakar who ran away from his daara in Kaolack. “Or if I didn’t learn the lesson well, he would hit me. I didn’t like being there because they hit me often.”
A 12-year-old boy, originally from Diourbel region, said he attended a Quranic school in Kaolack region where the marabout demanded a quota of 150-250 francs CFA: “Life at the daara was difficult, because they would hit you when you didn’t have the sum demanded.” The preferred form of punishment for failing to meet the quota, he explained, was to “faire par quatre” – holding the child’s arms and legs to prevent him from moving while he is whipped.
“When they took us par quatre, they would hit us until we had marks and blood on our back,” the boy said. “Sometimes we would be sick after. …When you’re injured you can rest for two days, but you have to go back out begging after that. …I left the daara because life was hard there.”
A runaway talibé, around age 6, said he was beaten by the marabout and the grand talibés [marabout’s assistant] at his daara in Ouakam, Dakar, if he failed to bring back his quota of 300 CFA. Human Rights Watch observed several faint scars on the child’s back. Another boy, 10 years of age, told Human Rights Watch that he ran away from his daara in Colobane, Dakar because of all the violence. “On Sundays, I had to bring back 500 CFA; on the other days it was 1000 CFA,” he said. “If I didn’t bring it, the marabout himself would hit me… He whipped me with a rope attached to the end of a baton. It cut me in the side.”
Another child, also age 6, lived at a daara in Dakar where he was required to beg for an unusually high quota of 2,000 CFA per day. The child ultimately made his way to a children’s center in Dakar. A professional working at the center told Human Rights Watch:
We returned the child to his family, but then the marabout went to them and asked for the child back. After that, when they would call him, the marabout would pass the phone to another child. Here in Dakar our team found him in the streets again. If he [the Quranic teacher] had 10 children he would be earning 20,000 CFA per day minimum; and it’s certain he sends more than 10 children out begging.
An 8 or 9-year-old runaway talibé from Saloum told Human Rights Watch he had spent two years in a daara in Dakar. He stared off into the distance as he recounted: “We begged for money and rice. The marabout asked for 400 CFA each day. On Wednesday it was 500 CFA, to pay the rent and electricity. If we didn’t bring the money, or if we didn’t recite the verses, the marabout would beat us. He hit us with an ardoise [wooden slate used to write verses of the Quran] broken in half.” The child said that he had seen talibés tied up at the daara if they tried to run away.
Chaining and Imprisonment
Chaining, tying up, or imprisoning the child are all-too-frequent methods used by abusive Quranic teachers, amounting to inhuman and degrading treatment. Five talibés interviewed by Human Rights Watch described being chained or locked up, or witnessing other talibés in such a situation. An additional four children had recounted similar stories to child welfare workers interviewed by Human Rights Watch.
An 18-year-old former talibé, who had sought refuge at a children’s center in Dakar, told Human Rights Watch his horrific story of imprisonment:
In my daara in Diourbel, I was imprisoned in a “cell” for two years because I didn’t want to learn. I did everything in that room – ate, went to the bathroom. There were many other talibés in the room with me, who had also refused to learn or tried to run away. All our legs were attached with chains, even the young ones, who were maybe 11 years old. The ones who tried to run away were punished, beaten. Finally, on December 28 , I was released, because I had served my sentence. I stayed at the daara until March , and then I took advantage of the hours of begging to run away.
A professional working in a children’s center in Dakar recounted the story of another former talibé who arrived in April:
We received a 16-year-old who had been in a daara for five years and imprisoned for two years in a daara in Saloum [Kaolack region]. It was a prison built for all the recalcitrants – the children who had run away several times, or who hadn’t succeeded at their studies, or who didn’t bring back enough money. It was a room built like a prison in the center of the daara… There were sometimes so many children that they couldn’t sit down, so they had to stand up all day. They were starving… What really struck me was that some tried to commit suicide… The children imprisoned in these cells are in such a state of psychological distress and dehumanization that they look for any possible way to escape… This child had slashed his veins so that he would be taken to the hospital. Others put products like jumbo or salt into the wounds so that they would get infected.
The professional also described how two talibés who arrived at the center in May 2017, ages approximately 16 and 18, had been imprisoned in a Touba daara for a year as punishment. “They were left in a room attached ankle-to-ankle with chains or iron shackles,” the professional said. The children had said they were also beaten and subject to sexual abuse during this time.
Rape and Sexual Abuse
Over the past year, Human Rights Watch has documented five cases of rape, sexual abuse, or attempted sexual abuse by Quranic teachers or their assistants.
In Saint-Louis in February 2017, a grand talibé (marabout’s assistant, around age 19) was convicted and sentenced to one-year prison term for sexually abusing a 12-year-old talibé. A Human Rights Watch researcher and Issa Kouyate, PPDH member and director of Maison de la Gare, visited this daara and spoke with the Quranic teacher. Research conducted by Maison de la Gare suggested that several other talibés had also been sexually abused in this daara, housed in a crumbling, filthy and abandoned building without latrines or running water. Kouyate lamented that even after he had conveyed his suspicions to the local authorities, they had not conducted further investigations. “It’s completely unacceptable; this daara should be closed,” Kouyate said.
Magatte Mbaye, a consultant for the Association of Senegalese Jurists, told Human Rights Watch that a Quranic teacher in the Keur Mbaye Fall district of Dakar (Pikine department) was convicted in March 2017 and sentenced to 10 years in prison for the rape of three talibés, all around the age of 12:
One talibé had been raped by the teacher for a long time, but he never told anyone; and eventually he left the daara. Then two other talibés were raped – the marabout did this many times. One day when the teacher came to rape one of them, the talibé refused, so the teacher grabbed his head and smashed it against the wall, which resulted in a fracture. After that the talibé told his father what happened… The father of one child, as well as the grandmother of the other, pressed charges. The third talibé who had already left the daara was brought in as a witness. We don’t know how many times he had raped them.
Most recently, in May 2017, a Quranic teacher was sentenced to six months prison in Touba for “détournement des mineurs” (attempting to lure or entice several talibés for purposes of sexual abuse). Though the media reported the story as rape, there was allegedly not enough evidence for a rape conviction.
Female students at daaras have also been sexually abused. Girls also attend traditional Quranic schools in Senegal, though in much smaller numbers than boys; in most cases they do not live at the daara, though some do. In mid-2016, a marabout in Diourbel was arrested for raping one of his female students and sexually abusing two others. In December 2016, a Quranic teacher in Guédiawaye, Dakar was convicted for sexually abusing another female Quranic student, age 9, in November.
Miserable Conditions and Willful Neglect in Daaras
In April and May 2017, Human Rights Watch visited 17 daaras in Dakar and Saint-Louis, the vast majority of which were in unfinished or crumbling, abandoned buildings. Many were swarming with flies and mosquitoes, clogged with trash, and had no latrines, mattresses, running water, or hygienic supplies. Quranic teachers in 15 of these daaras forced talibés to beg for money or food. Nearly all of the children observed appeared malnourished, with visible skin diseases. Several had untreated wounds.
One child rights activist showed Human Rights Watch a slum-like area just behind the Grand Dakar police station, where five or more small daaras operated in such conditions. Another daara in Guédiawaye, Dakar is also notorious for its horrific conditions. The Quranic teacher, who claimed his daara had 70 talibés (though others said there were more than 100), refused Human Rights Watch entry into the school. “Why should I allow outsiders into my daara to know my secrets?” he said. In contrast to the squalid living conditions of his talibes, the marabout wore an extravagant boubou and watch, carried a smartphone, and arrived in a car. He did not live at the daara, which resembled a fortress – an unfinished building with no windows, completely enclosed. Five grand talibés stood guard outside to prevent unwelcome visitors. Flies and mosquitoes swarmed in the air.
Human Rights Watch observed sleeping mats and blankets outside of the daara, propped against the walls.
Abdourahmane Kane, a child protection expert familiar with this daara, told Human Rights Watch:
There are so many children there that they even have to sleep outside because there is not enough space. There are no toilets, there is no water, there is no electricity, there are no windows. The children made holes at the bottom of the wall, just so they can breathe.
Limited Progress on Justice for Physical Abuse
Compared to past years, 2016 and 2017 have seen an increase in the number of investigations, prosecutions and convictions of Quranic teachers or their assistants for severe abuses against talibés, including violence, abuses leading to the child’s death, rape, and sexual abuse.
In January 2017, two Quranic teachers were convicted for causing talibé deaths. The first, charged with involuntary manslaughter, received a sentence of three years in prison for tying up the talibé in Darou Mousty who died in a fire; the second, charged with “assault and battery inducing unintentional death” of a talibé in the Parcelles Assainies district of Dakar in June 2016, was sentenced to 2 years in prison. 
In February, the Quranic teacher’s assistant who had sexually abused one or more talibés in Saint-Louis was sentenced to 1 year in prison. In March, the Quranic teacher who had raped three talibés in Keur Mbaye Fall, Dakar, was sentenced to 10 years in prison and 5 million CFA ($8,500) in fines. 
In 2016, the two Quranic teachers who had sexually abused female talibés in Guédiawaye and Diourbel were both tried and convicted, with one sentenced to 10 years in prison.
The “retrait” program rolled out in June 2016 demonstrated meaningful political will on the part of the government to address widespread abuses and exploitation of talibé children. However, the return of children to exploitative daaras and the failure to ensure justice for victims of forced begging more generally has emboldened abusive Quranic teachers and represents a missed opportunity to deter future abuses.
While the police, prosecutors and judiciary can and should act irrespective of the “retrait” program, greater coordination between the Ministry of Family and the ministries of Justice and the Interior would ensure that talibé children's rights to justice and protection are prioritized throughout the program.
The initiative to remove children from the streets inspired a great hope amongst both Seneglese civil society and the international community that the abuses against talibés would cease, and the children's most basic rights would finally be restored. This hope must not be betrayed.
Human Rights Rights proposes the following recommendations to ensure that the rights of talibé children are fully respected, both during the “retrait” program and in Quranic schools across Senegal.
To the Senegalese Government
- Ensure that the Ministry of Justice, the National Anti-Trafficking Unit, and the Ministry of the Interior are fully involved in the planning and operations of the “retrait des enfants de la rue” initiative, with a view to ensuring investigations and prosecutions of adults, including Quranic teachers, forcing children to beg for profit or committing other abuses.
- Enforce current domestic law that criminalizes forcing another into begging for economic gain—specifically, article 3 of Law No. 2005-06—including by investigating and holding accountable in accordance with fair trial standards marabouts and others who force children to beg.
- Enforce anti-trafficking provisions under Law No. 2005-06, which criminalizes child trafficking in accordance with the United Nations Trafficking in Persons Protocol.
- Enforce article 298 of the penal code that criminalizes the physical abuse of children, with the exception of “minor assaults,” including by investigating and holding accountable in accordance with fair trial standards marabouts and others who physically abuse talibés.
- Amend the law to include specific reference to all forms of corporal punishment in schools, in accordance with international law, including the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child.
- Amend the law to ensure that it holds responsible a Quranic teacher who oversees, orders, or fails to prevent or punish an assistant teacher who inflicts physical abuse on a talibé.
To the National Assembly
- Pass the draft law establishing legal status and regulations for daaras.
- Hold parliamentary hearings to discuss the impact and challenges of the “retrait des enfants de la rue” program, as well as the broader issue of child exploitation of through forced begging, including by Quranic teachers.
To the Ministry of Women, Family and Children
- Issue an official, public commitment that any children placed in protective care as part of the “retrait des enfants de la rue” program will no longer be returned to Quranic teachers and daaras that have forced them to beg or violated their rights in any other capacity. While in protective care, initiate systematic family tracing and reunification processes for all children, including talibés.
- Ensure the children’s centers utilized during the “retrait” program, such as Ginddi Center, have the budget necessary to adequately support and staff their operations.
- Ensure that periodic evaluation and follow-up is conducted for every child picked up from the streets and returned to a parent or guardian, in order to assess the well-being of the child and verify that the schools are not forcing children to beg or violating their rights in any other capacity.
- Ensure that all government personnel participating in the “retrait” (including police and social workers) are trained in existing laws banning forced begging and other abuses, receive child protection training, and are instructed on the appropriate referral mechanisms for any and all such violations encountered during the “retrait” operations.
- Immediately cease public funding and grants to any Quranic schools in which children are forced to beg or live in unacceptable conditions, and refer any such cases encountered to the police and/or the public prosecutor in the relevant district.
- Request the children’s centers utilized over the course of the “retrait,” including Ginddi Center, to review the files of children picked up from the streets and to refer any cases of suspected forced begging or abuse to the police and/or public prosecutor.
To the Ministry of Justice
- Instruct all judges and public prosecutors, in addition to the presidents of the Tribunals, to work closely with the Ministry of Family to actively investigate, refer and prosecute cases of talibé abuse and forced begging encountered during the “retrait des enfants de la rue.”
- Enforce the anti-trafficking law (no. 2005-06) by ensuring that 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 willful neglect of children, by investigating and holding to account all those who physically abuse and neglect talibés, notably Quranic teachers and assistants.
To the Ministry of the Interior
- Explicitly instruct all police officers, including the Juvenile Justice Unit, to proceed with investigations of forced child begging for purposes of profit and exploitation, banned under the 2005 anti-trafficking law, with a view to referring such cases to the prosecutor. Such investigations should include visits to the Quranic schools in question.
- Allocate sufficient resources and adequately trained personnel to the Juvenile Justice Unit of the National Police in support of the “retrait des enfants de la rue” operations.
- Implement a strict no-warning, no-negotiation policy for any Quranic teachers found to have forced talibés to beg or committed other abuses; ensure that all police personnel are aware of this policy and enforce it without exceptions, and that all such cases are referred to the prosecutor.
- Install and fund special offices to deal with cases involving children (“bureaux des mineurs”) in all police stations in Senegal.
- Instruct all prefects, mayors, and governors to investigate any problematic daaras in their district that come to their attention; to submit reports to the local public prosecutor on any violations of children’s rights encountered at such daaras; and to proceed with administrative closure of any daaras in which children are in danger.
- Instruct all gendarmes assigned to traffic duty to report their observations of talibé children begging, and to prevent these children from begging in dangerous traffic zones.
- Send instructions to all border control officers to ensure that every individual attempting to cross the border with a group of children provides parental authorization and identity information for each child.
To International Partners and the Senegalese Government
- Increase funding and support to organizations providing legal assistance to talibé children who are victims of abuse, exploitation, and trafficking.
- Consider providing increased support to the Child Rights Directorate (DDPEGV) within the Ministry of Family, to Ginddi Center, to the Juvenile Justice Unit of the National Police, or to the Justice Ministry’s anti-trafficking task force.
This report was researched and written by Lauren Seibert, West Africa Associate for the Africa Division at Human Rights Watch. Research assistance was provided by members of la Plateforme pour la Promotion et la Protection des Droits Humains (PPDH), a coalition of Senegalese civil society organizations working on the talibé issue. The report was edited by Corinne Dufka, Associate Director for the Africa Division. Elin Martinez, Children’s Rights Researcher; Clive Baldwin, Senior Legal Advisor; and Babatunde Olugboji, Deputy Program Director, provided thematic, legal and programmatic review respectively. Production assistance was provided by Olivia Hunter, Photo and Publications Coordinator; Fitzroy Hepkins, Administrative Manager; and Jose Martinez, Senior Coordinator.
Human Rights Watch is especially grateful to all the current and former talibé children who courageously agreed to be interviewed for this report. Human Rights Watch also thanks all individuals and organizations who contributed to this research, including: Issa Kouyaté and others from Maison de la Gare; Abdou Fodé Sow, from Yakaaru Gune Yi; Isabelle de Guillebon, Isabelle Diouf, and others from Samu Social Sénégal; Magatte Mbaye, consultant for Association des Juristes Sénégalaises; and Alassane Diagne from Empire des Enfants. Human Rights Watch greatly appreciates the openness shown by religious leaders in Saint-Louis and Dakar. Abdourahmane Kane, Yahya Sidibe of SOS Talibés, and Issa Kouyate of Maison de la Gare, all of whom facilitated meetings and visits to Quranic schools, deserve special thanks.
Human Rights Watch is also grateful for the openness and cooperation from Senegal’s government throughout the time this research was conducted, particularly from officials at at Ginddi Center; from the Ministry of Women, Family, and Children, particularly the Children’s Rights Directorate; from the Juvenile Justice Unit of the National Police; from the National Anti-Trafficking Unit; and from the Ministry of Justice. The collective efforts of civil society, religious authorities, and certain government officials inspire confidence that progress toward ending forced child begging is finally within reach.