DAKAR - Senegal is failing to prevent the abuse of thousands of students at the West African country’s Quranic schools, says Human Rights Watch, despite government promises to stop the exploitation. The rights group analyzed the Senegalese government's efforts to address abuses over the last two years and found them to be insufficient and ineffective.
Modou – not his real name - was just six years old when he says the abuse started.
After his parents died, the now 12-year-old boy says his uncle sent him to study and live at a Quranic school, where teachers forced him and other students to beg in the streets.
If they didn’t return with adequate money and food, they were restrained for months at a time, he says.
Pointing to the scars on his legs, Modou says if he misbehaved or didn’t recite the Koran properly, the teachers beat him and locked him in chains.
He says when he was beaten, he’d think of his mother and how, if she were still here, this would have never happened. But eventually, says Modou, he accepted it and told himself it would pass.
Modou is one of 100,000 Quranic students, known as talibés, who are being exploited and abused in Senegal, says Human Rights Watch in a report released Monday.
And the government, according to the rights group, is doing little to stop it.
The report titled “Senegal: Failure to End Abuses in Quranic Schools,” says students at some schools who refuse to beg are subject to harsh, physical punishments and often suffer from malnutrition and untreated illness.
Human Rights Watch found that some children have even died from neglect.
The number of teachers arrested for abuse has increased in recent years, but according to Human Rights Watch's Lauren Seibert, charges are often dropped due to the social influence of Koranic teachers.
“There were a dozen or so cases like this in the past couple years where you can clearly see that the final charge and or the corresponding sentence were reduced,” Seibert said.
Quranic schools are unregulated in Senegal so anyone looking to make money can open a religious school and profit from exploiting their students, says Human Rights Watch.
Modou was able to escape and find help at Empire des Enfants, a shelter in Dakar that cares for talibé runaways.
Program coordinator Alassane Diagne says the children often arrive filthy, tired and sick.
He asks why does this problem persist? It's because there are people who profit from this disorder, says Diagne. They don't need authorization to open their Quranic school, he says, no one is going to verify their credentials, and the government lacks the will to fix it. If you ask, they'll say it's because they don't have the resources, says Diagne, adding that he disagrees. They know where to find the means to fund the things that serve their interests, he says, so, it's a matter of will.
But not all Quranic school students are mistreated.
Quranic teacher Mouhamed Niass says his nearly 200 students are well cared for at his school in a Dakar suburb and that it is up to the state to stop abuse. The state should also provide funding to religious schools, says Niass, so children aren’t forced to beg.
He says the children need mats, they need mattresses, they need shelter. They need to be supported like the children at the public schools. It's unfortunate that the state doesn't do it. It causes problems. The schools need support in order to support the children, because they're the children of Senegal.
Thierno Diop, an inspector with Senegal’s ministry of education, says the ministry doesn't inspect religious schools, known as daaras, because it's not authorized to do so.
He says this problem goes above the education inspectors. The inspections are meant to investigate the regulated schools, says Diop, but the daaras, which are constantly moving from one location to the next, can’t be controlled. It's because of the bad will of the state that the talibé are still in the streets, he says. If the state wanted to stop it, adds Diop, they could do it.
A few towns in Senegal have seen some success, says Human Rights Watch’s Seibert, with mayors not only enforcing bans on begging but also shutting down religious schools that were deemed unsafe.
But enforcement at the local level is rare, she says.
A 2013 bill would have created a regulatory system for Quranic schools by establishing so-called “modern daaras” that teach secular subjects in addition to religious ones.
But the bill has yet to be passed into law.
And until the national government steps up, the majority of talibés, including Modou, will have to rely on a few, private shelters to protect them from those willing to do them harm.