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March 19, 2014

HRW: Senegal Must Crack Down on Quranic Schools' Forced Begging

by Jennifer Lazuta

Human Rights Watch says the government of Senegal needs to do more to crack down on so-called Quranic schools that abuse young boys and force them to beg on the streets for food and spare change. The forced begging has been a problem for years in Senegal, and the government had pledged to eliminate it by 2015. But HRW says little progress has been made. 

You don’t have to go far on the streets of Dakar before being approached by barefoot young boys in tattered t-shirts, asking for money or food.

The boys, known as talibe, can be as young as four years old.  They ask for 100 CFA, or about $.20. They hold out empty tomato cans to collect coins and food.

They need to meet their daily “quota” or face serious consequences.

“Each day there are tens of thousands of boys across the country are sent out onto the streets to beg.  They generally have to bring back a set amount of money, uncooked rice and sugar, that’s handed over to the Quranic teacher.  When they fail to bring back that amount of money, they are often beaten quite brutally,” explains Matt Wells, a West Africa researcher for Human Rights Watch (HRW).

Wells has studied the talibe in Senegal since 2010 and has written several reports on the topic.

He says the boys often live in overcrowded, unsanitary rooms.  They go hungry and receive very little actual education - religious or otherwise.

Not all Quranic schools in Senegal, known as daaras, engage in such exploitation and abuse. 

30,000 currently begging

However, a government survey this year found that of the nearly 55,000 children enrolled in Quranic schools in Dakar, more than 30,000 currently practice begging.

The problem is not new in Senegal, but activists say authorities have been slow to do anything about it.  Laws that forbid forced begging are rarely enforced.  

However, on the streets of Dakar, public opinion is slowly changing.

Thirty-six-year-old Abdoulaye Badji says, “We need to find a solution for these children, because to leave them out on the streets like that, it’s truly not good.  These boys, they have no future,” he says.  “They need better housing, for example, but the government is busy with other things.  At the very least, they could recruit better teachers.”

Protecting the talibe

There have been several high profile cases of abuse in recent years.

In March 2013, eight talibe died in a fire in Dakar.  Their teacher had locked them in the school building where they were living.  Neighbors said they knew the man was locking the children inside the school.

In the aftermath of the deadly fire, the government once again pledged to crack down on child begging and to better regulate Quranic schools.

But it’s been one year and HRW says the state has only shut down one Quranic school for safety reasons.  HRW says there are hundreds more that can be easily identified as violating the rights of their students.

Senegal’s Ministry of Justice says it is aware of the talibe problem and is working on new legislation.

Awa Ndour, a representative for the Ministry of Justice’s Task Force Against Human Trafficking, says, “The fight against child begging is a process that involves many different actors, not just the government.  We are working pass a new law to regulate Quranic schools and also to ensure the 2005 law is applied,” she says.  “But there is a lot of cultural resistance to such laws in Senegal.  There is often lobbying by religious groups.  So the authorities must fight this resistance to fight child begging.”

HRW’s Wells says a law dealing specifically with the regulation of Quranic schools would be a step in the right direction.  But, he adds, the government would then have to enforce the new regulations.