Africa

Can Senegal stop Koranic schools sending children to beg?

A child begging in Senegal
Image caption Some children have been beaten if they do not bring back enough money to school

Four-year-old Ousseynou screams, struggles to breathe and uses all his strength to try to loosen the grip of the two plainclothes policemen who are part of a team cracking down on child beggars in Senegal.

They drag the small boy into a minibus - he is shoeless and wearing torn shorts and a dark blue shirt that is at least three sizes too large.

Ousseynou is one of an estimated 30,000 children who beg on the streets of the capital, Dakar.

"This is the emergency phase of our operation," says Niokhobaye Diouf, the national director of child protection.

In the past, Senegal's authorities have been accused of complacency over tackling child begging.

But in June the president ordered "the immediate removal of all children from the street".

Since then more than 500 children have been "extracted" from the streets by a child protection unit.

On the bus sit another 30 boys, aged between four and 13 years old, who are being taken to a shelter.

Ousseynou will not stop crying, saying that his marabout, or spiritual guide, is waiting for him at a Koranic school on the outskirts of Dakar.

It is common for Senegalese Koranic schools to send their students, known as "talibe", out to beg for food and money.


Alioune Badara Seydi, Koranic teacher

"A child's place is not on the street, but how else can we provide for them?"


In the poor suburb of Sica Mbao, about 75 talibe beg for food and money every morning, from between 07:00 and 10:00.

Koranic teacher Alioune Badara Seydi argues that poverty and lack of state support leave the schools with no other alternative.

"These children are sent to us by parents across the country who live in extreme poverty, but who want their children to learn the Koran," he says.

"A child's place is not on the street, but how else can we provide for them?"

Image caption Some marabouts believe that begging teaches humility

He goes on to explain that the religious education they provide is valuable and begging teaches humility as well as reinforcing solidarity within a community.

"Many of the children that have been educated in this Daara [Koranic school] became important marabouts," he says.

When most of Senegal's population lived in villages, begging seldom led to exploitation, and did not expose the children to the hardships of a big city's streets.

Beatings and abuse

In Dakar - which has a population of more than a million people - it is a different story.

Children have reported being beaten if they fail to earn the sums demanded by marabouts, which can range from between 350 CFA ($0.50, £.049) and 500 CFA.

Image caption Undercover police have started rounding up children who have been sent by their school to beg

At least five children living in residential Koranic schools died in the first half of 2016 allegedly as a result of beatings meted out by their teachers or in traffic accidents while being forced to beg, according to a Human Rights Watch (HRW) report published in July.

Dozens of other children have been severely beaten, chained and sexually abused or violently attacked while begging over the last 18 months, the report said.

Although arrests of abusive teachers have increased slightly over the past year, courts in Senegal have prosecuted only a handful of cases and prosecutions for forced child begging are almost never pursued, HRW says.

Activists say leaders have been worried about the potential political fall-out of such arrests.

"Politicians don't want to upset influential Muslim leaders," says Moussa Ndoye, who is in charge of a community project aiming to reduce child begging.

"I have yet to see any strong actions to support the president's recent declarations."

Image caption The children rounded up are taken to a centre where they wait to be collected by their guardian

But authorities argue the "removal" operations which started in June have already had an impact.

"This is the first time the police have ever forcibly removed children from the streets to protect them," says child protection director Mr Diouf.

"Already there are visibly less children begging in the city's business centre. We know some marabouts are returning to their villages".

'Koranic schools to be registered'

But Mr Ndoye believes these measures are insufficient.

"It makes no sense to just pull children off the streets, no thought has been put into this action, there is no plan," he says.

"The action must be clearly mapped out and funded and involve the entire community. The state and the marabouts must speak to each other."

Image caption The children are provided with clean clothes, medical care and food at the centre

Mr Diouf does concede that policing the streets in search of children will not be enough to end the practice.

He says the authorities are in the process of registering all of the Koranic schools so they can be properly regulated.

At the state-run shelter for rounded up children, Ousseynou is provided with clean clothes, medical care and food.

The children's guardians, either their parents or their marabout, will be summoned to pick them up.

They will be issued with a warning: If the same child is found on the streets again, they will face prosecution.

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