By Rachel Borrell, guest blogger
In March 2013 a fire engulfed a Qu’ranic school (or daara) in the Dakar neighbourhood of Medina, killing eight young students – otherwise known as talibés. Their teacher and guardian was absent, apparently having returned to his house due to the unsanitary and uninhabitable conditions in the daara. The tragedy sent shockwaves through Senegalese society and seemingly awakened government officials to the urgent need to reform the daara system and its prolific exploitation of children.
It is estimated that at least 50,000 talibés are forced to beg on the streets of Senegal for approximately five hours a day, having been trafficked from rural areas of Senegal or from neighbouring countries, such as Mali and Guinea-Bissau. These children, who are almost exclusively boys, do not pay for their studies, meals or accommodation, but are instead obliged to beg for their food and keep, in addition to or instead of learning the Qu’ran. Talibés that are forced to beg are vulnerable to abuse, both on the streets and by their Qu’ranic masters, and are usually malnourished and susceptible to diseases, due to the overcrowded and unhygienic conditions in which they live.
Decisions to send children away to daaras are usually influenced by family poverty, a lack of access to free State education, and a strong desire by many parents for children to learn the Qu’ran from Qu’ranic Masters. However, combining Qu’ranic schooling with a broader education, including French, would enhance job prospects and make children better equipped for later life.
The practice of forced child begging is not an intrinsic part of Qu’ranic schooling and evidence suggests that many Qu’ranic Masters gain far in excess of the income needed to maintain their daaras and earn a basic living from child begging. As it stands, there is an insufficient legal framework to protect talibé children from forced begging. In August 2010, following public outcry in the wake of a Human Rights Watch report, Prime Minister Souleymane Ndéné Ndiaye announced a decree banning begging in public places. In September 2010 seven Qu’ranic masters were arrested and given six month sentences and a fine of 100,000 CFA (approximately $160 USD) as a “warning” under Law No. 2005-6, which explicitly criminalises forced child begging. However, these sentences were not carried out. According to the US State Department, a further two Qu’ranic Masters were sentenced during the same period and served one month prison terms before being released.
In September 2010, associations of Qu’ranic teachers in religious centres condemned the application of the law, threatening to withdraw their support for President Abdoulaye Wade in forthcoming elections, scheduled to take place in February 2012. The following month, President Wade retracted the ban, reportedly on the grounds that banning begging outright went against Senegal’s long established custom of collecting alms. Such incidences demonstrate a lack of political will to enforce the law against forced child begging by talibé children.
What’s more, there is a contradiction between Law No. 2005-6 and the Senegalese Penal Code, which allows for the seeking of alms on days, in places and under conditions established by religious traditions. In this regard, the International Labour Organization has requested that the Government of Senegal harmonise these two laws so as to criminalise beyond any doubt the exploitation of talibé children through forced begging.
In the two years that have passed since the Medina fire, a State programme has been introduced to set norms for daaras, including the eradication of begging, a more diverse academic curriculum, and decent standards of hygiene, health, child protection and child rights. Daaras will have to register officially with the State and will be inspected to ensure they conform to the norms. However, the law establishing the criteria against which daaras will be regulated is yet to be adopted.
When adopted, in order for the daara reform law to be successful, Senegal must ensure that it has strong public and civil society support, including the endorsement and involvement of surrounding communities and Qu’ranic Masters themselves. Law enforcement officials must also be trained in the legislative basis that prohibits and criminalises forced child begging.
In January 2016 the State of Senegal will be reviewed by the Committee on the Rights of the Child – the United Nations treaty body that assesses States’ adherence to their obligations under the Convention on the Rights of the Child. This presents an opportunity for civil society and the United Nations to put international pressure on the Senegalese Government to make the necessary legislative and practical reforms to end this barbaric form of modern slavery. In the meantime, it is imperative that the State of Senegal identifies talibés who are being forced to beg, removes them from harm and offers them rehabilitative care.
Photo Credit: Christophe DurpairePrint This Post