A Senegalese court turned the tide on years of tradition by fining Muslim holy men for sending children out on the streets to beg.
Seven Marabouts, or religious teachers, were fined and given six months probation last week for encouraging boys, some as young as four, to beg on their behalf.
Bowing to international pressure, the west African country’s government banned the practice three weeks ago and started rounding up the children, known as Talibés, along with other beggars. They then traced the Marabouts they were working for.
Talibés are young boys aged anywhere from four years old to 18, who are sent by their families, to study the Islamic holy book The Koran with Marabouts (teachers of the Koran).
Usually they are sent from Senegal’s countryside into cities, sometimes because their parents can’t afford to keep them. But most of the time, the Marabouts themselves don’t have enough money to look after the boys properly, so send them out to beg for money and food in return for only a few hours Koran training a day.
Many of the boys are violently abused if they do not raise enough money and they don’t get a proper education.
There are as many as 50,000 on the streets of Senegal, according to estimates by the campaign group, Human Rights Watch.
Speaking after last week’s court case, Aboubacry Barro, a lawyer for the convicted Marabouts, said: “This has been practiced since the beginning of time in Senegal. This is a case without precedent,” he told The New York Times.
Chérif Aïdara, an Islamic lecturer who had gathered with others to see the result said he was ‘very sad.’ “This is a custom from our ancestors,” he said. “This is how we teach the Koran.”
“It’s an abusive use of children,” said Ibrahima Thioub, a Senegalese historian at the Université Cheikh Anta Diop here. “These kids in the street don’t learn the Koran.It’s something totally new, and very important, to take the Marabouts to justice,” he said, noting that it is a risky move for the government. The Koranic Teachers’ Association in the town of Louga, on Thursday called for President Abdoulaye Wade to step down if the government up holds the ban.
“We have to wait and see if this is a one-time thing, or whether it’s a real engagement,” said Human Rights Watch’s Matthew Wells.