Thursday, April 15, 2010

Child labour: Senegal - forced begging and other abuses against Talibés

Source: Human Rights Watch (HRW) - I have to bring money, rice, and sugar each day. When I can't bring everything, the marabout beats me. He beats me other times too, even when I do bring the sum.... I want to stop this, but I can't. I can't leave, I have nowhere to go.

–Modou S., 12-year-old talibé in Saint-Louis

The teachings of Islam are completely contrary to sending children on the street and forcing them to beg.... Certain marabouts have ignored this—they love the comfort, the money they receive from living off the backs of the children.

–Aliou Seydi, marabout in Kolda

At least 50,000 children attending hundreds of residential Quranic schools, or daaras, in Senegal are subjected to conditions akin to slavery and forced to endure often extreme forms of abuse, neglect, and exploitation by the teachers, or marabouts, who serve as their de facto guardians. By no means do all Quranic schools run such regimes, but many marabouts force the children, known as talibés, to beg on the streets for long hours—a practice that meets the International Labour Organization's (ILO) definition of a worst form of child labor—and subject them to often brutal physical and psychological abuse. The marabouts are also grossly negligent in fulfilling the children's basic needs, including food, shelter, and healthcare, despite adequate resources in most urban daaras, brought in primarily by the children themselves.

In hundreds of urban daaras in Senegal, it is the children who provide for the marabout. While talibés live in complete deprivation, marabouts in many daaras demand considerable daily sums from dozens of children in their care, through which some marabouts enjoy relative affluence. In thousands of cases where the marabout transports or receives talibés for the purpose of exploitation, the child is also a victim of trafficking.

The Senegalese and Bissau-Guinean governments, Islamic authorities under whose auspices the schools allegedly operate, and parents have all failed miserably to protect tens of thousands of these children from abuse, and have not made any significant effort to hold the perpetrators accountable. Conditions in the daaras, including the treatment of children within them, remain essentially unregulated by the authorities. Well-intentioned aid agencies attempting to fill the protection gap have too often emboldened the perpetrators by giving aid directly to the marabouts who abuse talibés, insufficiently monitoring the impact or use of such aid, and failing to report abuse.

Moved from their villages in Senegal and Guinea-Bissau to cities in Senegal, talibés are forced to beg for up to 10 hours a day. Morning to night, the landscape of Senegal's cities is dotted with the sight of the boys—the vast majority under 12 years old and many as young as four—shuffling in small groups through the streets; weaving in and out of traffic; and waiting outside shopping centers, marketplaces, banks, and restaurants. Dressed in filthy, torn, and oversized shirts, and often barefoot, they hold out a small plastic bowl or empty can hoping for alms. On the street they are exposed to disease, the risk of injury or death from car accidents, and physical and sometimes sexual abuse by adults.

In a typical urban daara, the teacher requires his talibés to bring a sum of money, rice, and sugar every day, but little of this benefits the children. Many children are terrified about what will happen to them if they fail to meet the quota, for the punishment—physical abuse meted out by the marabout or his assistant—is generally swift and severe, involving beatings with electric cable, a club, or a cane. Some are bound or chained while beaten, or are forced into stress positions. Those captured after a failed attempt to run away suffer the most severe abuse. Weeks or months after having escaped the daara, some 20 boys showed Human Rights Watch scars and welts on their backs that were left by a teacher's beatings. Daily life for these children is one of extreme deprivation. Despite bringing money and rice to the daara, the children are forced to beg for their meals on the street. Some steal or dig through trash in order to find something to eat. The majority suffer from constant hunger and mild to severe malnutrition. When a child falls ill, which happens often with long hours on the street and poor sanitary conditions in the daara, the teacher seldom offers healthcare assistance. The children are forced to spend even longer begging to purchase medicines to treat the stomach parasites, malaria, and skin diseases that run rampant through the daaras. Most of the urban daaras are situated in abandoned, partially constructed structures or makeshift thatched compounds. The children routinely sleep 30 to a small room, crammed so tight that, particularly during the hot season, they choose to brave the elements outside. During Senegal's four-month winter, the talibés suffer the cold with little or no cover, and, in some cases, even a mat to sleep on.

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