Girls in Islamic schools across Senegal are prey to sexual abuse while male pupils are sent to beg in the streets to make money for Koranic teachers, a child rights group said on Tuesday.
Children are sent by their parents in the West African nation or trafficked from neighboring countries including Guinea-Bissau to Islamic schools, called daaras, where they are expected to receive food, shelter and teachings from the Koran.
But tens of thousands of these children, known as talibe, are forced to beg by teachers, called marabouts, who beat them if they fail to bring in some 2,000 CFA francs ($3) per day, according to rights groups such as Human Rights Watch (HRW).
Several cases of violence and sexual abuse towards talibe — inside daaras by teachers and other pupils, and on the street by strangers — have been documented in recent years by HRW.
While the vast majority of talibe are boys, the female pupils are particularly vulnerable to violence and sexual abuse from marabouts when the boys are sent out to beg, said Amavi Akpamagbo, Senegal country director for Plan International.
"Girls are going under the radar because they are not on the streets, and it is difficult to know what is going on in the daaras," Akpamagbo told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in Dakar.
"What are they doing while the boys are out begging? It is a blindspot for us and civil society," he said, adding that the group planned to do more research into the lives of the girls.
Girls in daaras have complained of being made to carry out domestic work, like cooking and cleaning, while some have been victims of sexual abuse, according to Plan International.
While girls only make up a small minority of the talibe in Senegal, recent research shows that there are more female pupils in daaras than previously thought, said Sarah Mathewson, Africa program manager for Anti-Slavery International.
Senegal last year launched a drive to get the talibe off the streets, saying those who force them to beg would be imprisoned in an effort to end a practice estimated by the United Nations to generate $8 million a year for Koranic teachers in Dakar.
Yet a draft law to regulate and modernize daaras, by raising teaching standards and eliminating trafficking and begging, has stalled amid concerns from marabouts about the integration of the schools into Senegal's education system, activists say.