Call to end Senegal school abuse

2010-04-15 15:56

Dakar - A leading international rights group called on Senegal's government Thursday to clamp down on Islamic schools whose leaders are subjecting tens of thousands of children to forced begging and daily beatings in conditions it says are "akin to slavery".

Powerful religious leaders known as "marabouts" hold enormous political influence in this mostly Muslim West African nation. Parents often send their children to traditional Quranic schools run by marabouts, both because they hope their children will receive a religious education and because they are free.

But some marabouts are instead banking tens of thousands of dollars in annual profits by forcing droves of children as young as four into the streets to beg for change, according to a new report released by New York-based Human Rights Watch. Children who return without enough money are often beaten, the group said.

"Senegal should not stand by while tens of thousands of ... children are subjected every day to beatings, gross neglect, and, in fact, conditions akin to slavery," said Georgette Gagnon, the group's Africa director.

Senegal's government claims it has tried to address the issue, passing legislation in 2005 that criminalised the act of forcing others to beg for financial gain.

Concrete steps

"But the authorities have failed to take concrete steps to implement the law and ... not one marabout has been charged or tried solely for the crime of forced begging," Human Rights Watch said in a statement.

Presidential spokesperson and Religious Affairs Minister Bamba Ndiaye acknowledged children are being "exposed to danger", but he said the law alone could not immediately make the phenomenon disappear.

"You can never forget that this is a social phenomenon and, above all, a religious phenomenon ... the change has to come from the religious communities first," Ndiaye said. He added that parents also bear responsibility for sending their children to the schools and need to be educated on the risks children face.

Human Rights Watch estimates at least 50 000 boys, most between the ages of four and 12, are begging on the streets of Senegal, a country whose government has often been upheld by international donors as a democratic beacon in a region notorious for coups and war. Many of the boys are from neighbouring countries, especially Guinea-Bissau.

The tiny boys can often be seen wandering barefoot in the capital, Dakar, moving in small groups without adult supervision, swarming cars and passers-by. They are often dressed in ragged, torn clothes. Many beg late into the night, returning to sleep 30 to a room in abandoned or half-constructed buildings that offer little protection from the elements, Human Rights Watch said.

Documented myriad beatings

Religious leaders demand daily quotas of the children and beat them or abuse them psychologically when they fail to meet the quotas, the group said, adding it had documented myriad beatings, including incidents in which children were "chained, bound, and forced into stress positions as they were beaten".

The report said the children suffer from skin diseases, malaria, stomach parasites and malnutrition. And when they get sick, they are often forced to work overtime to pay for medicine, Human Rights Watch said.

Those who buy new clothes have had them confiscated by their marabouts - who give them to their own children instead.

The religious leaders, meanwhile, collect between $20 000 to $60 000 per year from their child beggars, and some gain as much as $100 000, the rights group said.

"Instead of marabouts ensuring that the boys in their care have food, education, and proper shelter, all too often the young boys become the means to provide for the marabout and his family," Gagnon said. "This is unconscionable."

More than 1 000 of the boys run away from the schools every year.

Human Rights Watch said none of the religious schools - apart from a few sponsored by the state - are regulated by government.

"The rampant abuse of these children will only be eradicated when the government stands up to religious authorities and brings offending marabouts to book," Gagnon said.