Arbitrary arrests of opposition figures, use of excessive force by security forces, restrictive civic space, rape, and other serious human rights abuses continued in Senegal throughout the year. On June 25, Senegal’s national assembly approved two flawed and overly broad counterterrorism laws with life imprisonment for those found guilty of flouting the laws.
Rape, sexual exploitation, and abuse of students remain serious concerns within Senegal’s education system. Senegalese girls face high levels of sexual and gender-based violence, including sexual exploitation, harassment, and abuse by teachers and school officials. Some students were raped and sexually abused by their peers. Most of these cases go unreported, and perpetrators are seldom held to account. On June 29, a 19-year-old male student was detained by police and accused of raping a 15-year-old girl, also a student at the same school.
LGBT people and activists continued to be subjected to smear campaigns and abuse, including threats and physical assaults. Media and local rights groups reported dozens of incidents of assault on homosexual people in Senegal in the first half of the year.
Exploitation, abuse, and neglect of children living in Senegal’s traditional Quranic schools continued. Thousands of them, known as talibés, live in conditions of extreme squalor, deprived of adequate food and medical care.
Excessive Use of Force
During protests in March and June, security forces used excessive force to maintain public order.
On March 3, demonstrations broke out across Senegal following prominent opposition leader Ousmane Sonko’s arrest in Dakar. Security forces fired teargas and live bullets to disperse the protests and arrested 100 people, leaving hundreds injured. Sonko, leader of the political party, Patriots of Senegal for Work, Ethics, and Fraternity (PASTEF) was arrested after a woman accused him of rape, an allegation that he denied, saying it was politically motivated. His arrest sparked massive demonstrations with thousands of largely young people, members of opposition parties, and civil society members taking to the streets across the country. In a March 5 speech, Interior Minister Antoine Félix Abdoulaye Diome said the protests were “acts of terror,” “insurrection,” “vandalism,” and “banditry,” and were illegal due to the state of emergency for the Covid-19 pandemic.
Radio France Internationale (RFI) reported that at least 10 people died in the incident. International human rights organizations documented the deaths of at least eight people during the demonstrations, some “caused by the use of excessive force and firearms by security forces.” Senegal’s Red Cross reported that 6 people died and at least 590 were injured, including 232 who were transferred to health centers for treatment. Opposition groups reported that 11 people died.
On June 25, people took to the streets in Dakar, following a call by the Movement for the Defense of Democracy (Mouvement pour la défense de la démocratie, M2D), a group of opposition parties and civil society groups, to protest the national assembly’s approval of two controversial counterterrorism laws. The media reported that the police responded by firing teargas and arresting at least 20 protesters. All those arrested have been released, with one alleging that the police beat and brutalized him.
The two new flawed counterterrorism laws modify the penal code and Criminal Procedure Code and were approved by the national assembly by a vote of 70 to 11. The government said the laws are aimed at “strengthening the fight against terrorism, maritime piracy, and transnational organized crime,” but civil society groups and opposition parties criticized them as overly broad and threatening fundamental rights and freedoms.
The laws define “terrorist acts” to include “seriously disturbing public order,” “criminal association,” and “offenses linked to information and communication technologies,” all punishable with life in prison. The laws make it a criminal offense to “incite others” to carry out acts of terrorism, but does not define incitement, putting at risk of prosecution freedom of expression, including by the media.
The laws would make the leaders of associations, trade unions, or political parties criminally responsible for “offenses committed” by their organizations, threatening the right to association. If an organization is found guilty, the laws allow the confiscation of the leaders’ and the organization’s property. The laws also enhance law enforcement powers to surveil terrorism suspects without a judge’s authorization.
On June 30, opposition party members filed an appeal with the Constitutional Council, arguing that the laws are unconstitutional and are contrary to Senegal’s domestic and international legal obligations. On July 30, the Constitutional Council struck the appeal, ruling that the laws are not unconstitutional. However, it reduced to 12 months, instead of the initial 24, the administrative control and surveillance measures the laws allow for those convicted of acts of terrorism.
Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people and activists continued to be subjected to smear campaigns and abuse. Article 319 of Senegal’s penal code punishes “acts against nature” with a person of the same sex with up to five years in prison. Media and local rights groups reported dozens of incidents of assault on LGBT people in Senegal in the first half of the year.
On May 23, the group “And Samm Jikko Yi,” supported by the Senegal Islamic Association, organized an anti-LGBT demonstration in Dakar and called for legislation punishing “acts against nature” to be further toughened. In June, according to media reports, an employee of the Senegalese ministry of education was fired after he asked students taking an English exam at a Dakar high school to write about homosexuality.
Abuses against Talibé Children in Quranic Schools
Abuse, exploitation, and neglect of children attending Senegal’s still-unregulated, traditional Quranic boarding schools (daaras) continued at alarming rates. Human Rights Watch has estimated that over 100,000 children known as “talibés” are forced by their Quranic teachers in Senegal to beg daily for money, food, rice, or sugar. Many Quranic teachers (also known as marabouts) and their assistants continue to set daily begging quotas enforced by beatings, and subjected talibés to neglect. Some committed other forms of abuse, such as chaining talibé children.
Each year thousands of talibés, including Senegalese and foreign children, migrate to major cities to attend Senegal’s daaras. Thousands of talibés are victims of human trafficking. Trafficking under Senegalese law includes the act of exploiting children for money through forced begging, as well as the recruitment or transport of children for this purpose.
Despite strong domestic laws banning child abuse and human trafficking, and government efforts to address these issues, sustained commitment by Senegalese authorities to stop forced begging and abuse of talibés has proven elusive.. There were some prosecutions and convictions of Quranic teachers for abuses against talibé children in 2021, including for beating and chaining children and for the death of a boy following a beating in 2020, but enforcement of existing laws against exploitation through forced begging remained limited. The government continued its programs to “modernize” and support daaras. Some local governments continued efforts to reduce child begging and “remove children from the streets” in 2021, following the government’s rollout of the third phase of this program nationally in 2020.
Sexual and Gender-Based Violence
Senegalese girls face high levels of sexual and gender-based violence, including sexual exploitation, harassment, and abuse by teachers and school officials, as well as rape and sexual abuse by other students.
On June 29, a 19-year-old male student was detained by police and accused of raping a 15-year-old girl, a student at the same school. The accused reportedly shared a video about the rape that has been widely distributed via WhatsApp and other channels, sparking the condemnation of the rape and the accused, as well as efforts to vilify and discredit the survivor’s account of the rape. The government has not yet accepted the scale of school-related sexual violence or taken concrete actions to tackle school-related sexual violence and protect survivors when and after they report abuses.