A report released in Senegal by Human Rights Watch says 50,000 boys are subjected to slavery-like conditions and severe abuse in urban Koranic schools. The report condemns the Senegalese government for its failure to enforce laws against forced begging and child abuse.
Barefoot boys, as young as four-years-old, begging on the street in tattered, oversized clothing are a common sight in Dakar and Senegal's other urban areas.
They are called talibe. It is a term that means "student of the Koran", but is more commonly used in Senegal to refer to boys who are given by their parents to local religious teachers, called marabouts, who then use them for begging in urban areas.
In a report released in Dakar, Human Rights Watch condemned this practice as "akin to slavery" and estimates that tens of thousands of boys suffer brutal physical and psychological abuse at the hands of a marabout.
Human Rights Watch says these boys spend long hours on the street begging, instead of learning the Koran.
The report's head researcher, Matthew Wells, said if these boys do not bring back their daily quota of money, they are severely beaten.
Wells said the children in these urban da'aras, or Koranic schools, often live in "deplorable conditions."
"They are not fed by the marabout, despite bringing back large sums of money and rice each day," Wells said. "They live in structures that are either partially constructed or abandoned houses. When they fall sick, which happens often, because they spend long hours on the street working and they are not fed properly, the marabouts generally do not provide any sort of health care, so the kids have to beg extra to pay for their own medicines or more often, they just simply suffer."
Human Rights Watch estimates 1,000 boys run away from these da'aras each year, joining Senegal's growing ranks of street children.
Some are afraid of being returned to an abusive marabout by their parents, while others simply do not remember where home is.
The report is based on interviews with 175 current and former talibes and 120 other people, including marabouts, parents who had sent their children to these schools, aid workers, Islamic scholars and government officials.
Wells is careful to specify that forced begging and mistreatment do not happen in all Senegalese da'aras. He says Human Rights Watch is against the exploitation of children, not Koranic education.
He says the Senegalese government has created well-organized "modern da'aras," where children are not mistreated or exploited, but said the state can do more to protect children.
"There is actually a da'ara inspectorate already, which with the Ministry of Interior, we believe could be tasked with going into the da'aras throughout the country and making sure that they met conditions that satisfied children's basic rights, and if they did not they would be closed down," Wells said.
Human Rights Watch deplored a lack of government will in enforcing existing laws that prohibit forced begging and child abuse.
In Senegal's predominantly Muslim society, religious leaders and Muslim brotherhoods exercise considerable social, economic and political power, which government officials say makes it difficult to crack down on abusive marabouts.
But Human Rights Watch says it spoke to religious leaders who are against forced begging and ready to work to combat child exploitation.