As a week-long international Islamic conference gets under way in Dakar, Senegal, aid workers are raising the alarm on tens of thousands of Senegalese children who have been given away by their parents to Koranic teachers. VOA's Nico Colombant reports from Dakar, with additional reporting by Tatiana Mossot, that many of the children spend hours begging for money and also face abuse.
Children known as talibe are being given a break, and games to play, as well as food, at this aid center.
Usually, their job during the day is to beg for money for their religious teachers.
But some, like these children trying to do a puzzle, are able to escape here for a few hours every week.
The aid worker who runs the center in MBour is Annie Camara. While helping the children, she found out some were being sexually abused by older talibe or by their teachers.
When she pressed charges in one case involving a young boy she believes had been raped, she says she ran into trouble.
She says all the religious leaders known as marabouts, and even the local population, became angry with her. She says no one wanted to believe that a man could sleep with a boy. She says no one wanted to listen to what she was saying.
She says she used to receive 700 children at her center, but that the talibe were told they should not even speak to her anymore, much less come to her center.
All of a sudden, she says, she was seen as evil.
She says she did not know marabouts could be so powerful.
While the children play outside, Camara clicks on her computer to show images of wounded talibe children.
She says they often come to her with terrible injuries. Most of them look like they were beaten.
Marabouts deny they beat the children, and say they are the only ones giving them an education.
Another aid worker, Mohamed Cherif Diop, says he has nothing against marabouts or Islamic teachings, but finds the lack of regulation for Koranic schools alarming.
He says it creates what he calls "a permissive situation", where everything can be done, and everyone can do whatever they want. He says it leads to pedophilia, violence against minors, even the trafficking of children.
The government says it is trying to create religious schools in which children can learn Koranic teachings without having to beg. Officials in the department of what is called non-conventional learning at the Ministry of Solidarity say they are trying to find ways to reduce the marabouts' dependence on begging.
But they say it is not easy, because they admit many marabouts have close ties with elected politicians.
At night, another aid group plies the streets in a minivan looking for talibe kids who sleep outside.
One young child is huddled up in his tee-shirt, barefoot, looking cold, tired and scared. But he refuses any help.
An aid worker says this happens often. He adds it is not surprising that these children become suspicious of everyone when they are treated so badly, sometimes as early as the age of three.
Most of their families are too poor to take care of them, so they prefer to give them away to religious teachers.
The latest estimates are that there are 10,000 child beggars out on the streets of Dakar, and 100,000 in Senegal, a reality which will be hidden from the cordoned off VIP area this week during the Islamic Conference.