Thousands of children in Senegal are being severely abused, treated like slaves and forced to beg on the streets, Human Rights Watch said in a report. The abuse taking place in Qur’anic schools under the label that the children are getting religious teaching is means the country could be breaking key international and local laws, said the report out yesterday asking for a government crackdown.
It comes after years of pressure from rights groups in the west African country to ban the schools’ system. At least 50,000 pupils of Senegal’s religious schools are on the streets of this impoverished nation’s cities, the report said, and “subjected to conditions akin to slavery.” Holding out begging bowls and tin cans at passers-by and drivers, they collect coins for religious leaders who have promised their parents that they will be taught about the Koran. In fact, the children’s main duty is often to support the religious leaders, Human Rights Watch said.
The children, some trafficked in from neighbouring Guinea-Bissau, are forced to sleep sometimes 30in one filthy room, then are sent back to the streets each day to meet a begging target. If they don’t bring back enough money that day, they are often subjected to “swift and severe” physical abuse, the report said. “The Senegalese and Bissau-Guinean governments, Islamic authorities under whose auspices the schools allegedly operate, and parents have all failed miserably to protect tens of thousands of these children from abuse, and have not made any significant effort to hold the perpetrators accountable,” the report said. All over this city, the sight of squadrons of small, ragged children with hands extended and begging bowls thrust forward is a familiar one. Motorists stopped in traffic or leaving their cars are routinely solicited, and pedestrians, particularly Westerners, cannot walk on downtown streets without being stopped for coins by the children, many well under the age of 10. The tiny children run in and out of traffic, unsupervised by any adult.
“By no means do all” the religious schools engage in the practice, the report said, but it said hundreds did. Human Rights Watch criticized Senegal for failing to enforce current laws that make it illegal to force others to beg and to abuse children, and for not regulating the schools, called daaras, where the children are kept. As well as criticising parents who turn over their children to religious leaders, known as ‘marabouts’, the group laid most of the blame squarely on the Senegalese government. “Given the widespread nature of this problem, only with a government response will it be effectively eradicated,” said Matt Wells, who wrote the report.