Senegal crackdown fails to improve lot of child beggars

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Dakar - Dawn has barely broken as three of Senegal's estimated 50 000 child beggars dart through the capital's streets, hoping for a bag of sugar or a few coins to hand over to their teachers.

Senegal's "talibes" - children as young as four sent to Islamic boarding schools by their parents, then forced to earn their keep by begging - are out in force every day in Dakar, despite a government crackdown on the practice.

Child specialists say a spike in numbers at dedicated reception centres left them struggling to house so many children as they sifted through individual cases, but business as usual has resumed in the months since.

Mouhamed Lo, a medical assistant at the Yakaaru Guneye centre ("Kids' Hope" in the local Wolof language), spots the trio wandering the suburb of Guediawaye with begging bowls in hand, and approaches.

"They have been here since 6am, just after the first prayer of the day," he said, describing the rhythm of life for many young boys in this majority-Muslim west African nation.

"The state does nothing for these children. I have been doing this job 15 years and nothing has changed," Lo added.

Three times a week, Lo joins forces with a social worker to scout out these small groups of boys and warn them of the dangers of begging in a city of few pavements and notoriously terrible drivers.

Their task is immense: 30 000 of these children beg in Dakar alone, and abuses are common.

Human Rights Watch has documented two deaths from abuse at the hands of teachers, five sexual abuse cases and 28 cases of beating and imprisonment in Senegal, all recorded since the crackdown began last year.

 Religious tradition 

Studying in an Islamic boarding school, or "daara", is a respected decision, especially among rural families. A son is sent away at a young age to learn from a "marabout", or teacher of the Koran.

In reality most learn little of the Koran and less of anything else that might give them a head start in life, instead spending long hours begging with the threat of a beating if they fail to bring back enough food or money.

In July 2016 the government began rounding up the talibes and checking them for disease or signs of maltreatment at dedicated reception centres like Yakaaru Guneye.

The staff struggled to cope with the influx.

"It was really tough for us. We have gone over our capacity by taking in more than 150 children," said the centre's education specialist Seydina, who only gave his first name.

The state, Seydina believes, put the cart before the horse in taking the children off the streets without providing extra support to treatment centres.

"The state has just cleaned up around the edges," the specialist added.

Rights groups have said more than 1 000 children identified by the government as beggars ultimately ended up back at the same boarding schools with the same teachers.

They believe the lack of sanctions against teachers and schools means they are able to act with impunity, and have called on political candidates running in the current legislative elections to do more if elected.

A bill drafted in 2013 after a horrific fire that killed nine talibes has yet to be adopted by parliament, they note.

 Runaways 

Yakaaru Guneye currently houses 33 children, Seydina told AFP, but the number fluctuates daily.

Seydina had just completed a mediation between a 10-year-old talibe and a marabout who was allowed to leave accompanied by the child.

"The teacher was very receptive. He has agreed to send the child back to his family in Casamance (southern Senegal)," Seydina said.

"But if the teacher doesn't respect what has been said here, the child can run off again and come back to us," he added.

The centre's employees don't have the legal right to pick up children off the street, but if a talibe arrives in distress on their doorstep he will be taken in.

Otherwise, efforts are made by the centre to take their minds off the daily fear of missing their targets.

The youngest learn to read and write, while others gather for story time in French, seated on steps.

Down the road, sometimes kicking a ball around in the sand is enough to help them forget the unrelenting hardness of their lives.

"They really like this activity. When they do something wrong during the week, the punishment is not to be allowed to go to football," explains their coach Isboulah.

Expressing themselves through sport builds "team spirit", he adds.

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