Dusty, dirty, and often-barefooted boys holding empty tomato cans or plastic bowls as they beg for money remain a common sight in Senegal’s capital, Dakar, and in many other cities across the country. Most of them are current or runaway talibés – Quranic students – sent to live and study at traditional Quranic schools known as daaras. Despite periodic moments of increased but inconsistent government attention to their plight, the number of talibé children subjected to forced begging and other serious abuses by their Quranic teachers remains staggering.
Based on existing data, Human Rights Watch estimates that more than 100,000 talibés living in residential daaras across Senegal are forced by their Quranic teachers, also known as marabouts, to beg daily for money, food, rice or sugar. Thousands of these children live in conditions of extreme squalor, denied sufficient food and medical care. Many are also subject to physical abuse amounting to inhuman and degrading treatment.
After fleeing his daara in 2018 to escape abuse, a 9-year-old talibé told Human Rights Watch: “The daily [begging] quota [set by the marabout ] was 500 francs CFA [US$0.90]… I didn’t like the daara because they hit us all the time – if we didn’t memorize the verses of the Quran, or if we didn’t bring money. At the daara, they beat you until you think you will die.”
Government officials have repeatedly pledged to address the problem over the years, including by rolling out two phases of a Dakar-focused program to “remove the children from the streets” in June 2016 and March 2018. However, these efforts have had limited impact, failing to reach the thousands of talibés begging in other regions across the country. Sustained commitment by the Senegalese authorities to stop the forced begging and abuse, ensure justice, and protect talibés has proven elusive.
This report documents scores of serious abuses committed against talibé children by Quranic teachers or their assistants in 2017 and 2018, including deaths, beatings, sexual abuse, chaining and imprisonment, and numerous forms of neglect and endangerment. The abuses took place in at least eight of Senegal’s 14 administrative regions (Dakar, Diourbel, Fatick, Kaolack, Louga, Saint-Louis, Tambacounda, and Thiès); a Human Rights Watch researcher visited four of these regions: Dakar, Diourbel, Louga and Saint-Louis.
The report also documents forced begging, trafficking, and problems related to talibé migration, including illicit transport of groups of talibés across regions or country borders; cases of talibés abandoned by their marabouts or parents; and the hundreds of talibés who end up in the streets or in children’s shelters each year after fleeing abusive daaras.
The report reveals the role of some parents in perpetuating these practices by turning a blind eye or returning children to abusive or exploitative daaras.
The findings in this report are based on 10 weeks of field research in Senegal between June 2018 and January 2019, phone interviews between May 2018 and May 2019, and information drawn from credible secondary sources including court documents and media reports. Human Rights Watch interviewed over 150 people, including 88 current and former talibés, 23 Quranic teachers, and dozens of Senegalese social workers, child protection experts, activists, and government officials.
Building on five previous reports by Human Rights Watch documenting abuses against talibé children since 2009, this report demonstrates that severe abuses remain pervasive despite some government efforts to protect and assist talibés in 2017 and 2018.
Abuses in 2017 and 2018
Over the past two years, Human Rights Watch and a Senegalese coalition of human rights groups, the Platform for the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights (la Plateforme pour la Promotion et la Protection des Droits Humains, PPDH), observed hundreds of talibé children begging in numerous locations across the country, including the cities of Dakar, Diourbel, Louga, Touba and Saint-Louis. The children often begged in front of police and gendarmes, near government buildings, between moving cars and along busy highways. Some were as young as five years old, and many suffered from skin infections or malnutrition.
Sixty-three of the 88 talibés interviewed by Human Rights Watch said that their Quranic teacher required them to return with a quota of money each day, ranging from 100 to 1,250 francs CFA ($0.20-$2.20). One runaway talibé, approximately 11 or 12 years old, said that he was forced to beg for money – as well as all of his meals – by a Quranic teacher in Dakar. “The ‘payment’ was 500 francs CFA, and 550 CFA on Fridays [the Muslim holy day of worship],” he said. “If we didn’t bring it, the marabout whipped us with a cable. Once it injured me on my stomach.”
Human Rights Watch documented the deaths of 16 talibé children in 2017 and 2018 due to abuse, neglect or endangerment by Quranic teachers or their assistants. The incidents occurred in the regions of Saint-Louis, Diourbel and Thiès. The children, who were between the ages of 5 and 15, include three who died following severe beatings, four who died in two daara fires, five killed in traffic accidents while begging or avoiding return to the daara, and four who died from untreated illnesses. Nine of these deaths took place in 2018, including two as a result of beatings: one in the city of Touba (Diourbel region) in April 2018, and one in the town of Mpal (Saint-Louis region) in May 2018.
Human Rights Watch also documented 61 cases of beatings or physical abuse against talibés in 2017 and 2018, 15 cases of actual or attempted rape or sexual abuse, and 14 cases of children imprisoned, tied or chained in daaras. These abuses were all allegedly committed by Quranic teachers or their assistants. Human Rights Watch and PPDH conducted field research in four of the eight regions where abuses were documented. Due to the frequent movement and migration of talibés – with some transported by parents or marabouts from one region to another, and some running away from abusive daaras – many talibés interviewed in one region had experienced abuse in another region.
In 43 of the documented abuse cases, children were beaten by marabouts or their assistants for failing to bring the requested sum of money after begging. Among the 14 cases of talibés restrained or imprisoned, many in cell-like rooms with bars or grating on the windows, some of the children were locked up for weeks or even months. “If we tried to run away, the marabout would chain us by both legs so we couldn’t move,” said a 13-year-old talibé who escaped after being chained for three weeks in a daara in Touba.
Human Rights Watch also documented numerous cases of child neglect by Quranic teachers during field visits to 22 Quranic schools in Dakar, Diourbel, Louga and Saint-Louis regions. Multiple daaras housed from dozens to hundreds of talibés in conditions of extreme filth and squalor, often in unfinished buildings missing walls, floors or windows. Trash, sewage and flies clogged the ground and air, and children slept crammed dozens to a room or outside, often without mosquito nets. Dozens of talibés with visible infections or illnesses had not received medical treatment, and 13 daaras visited provided little to no food to the children, according to talibé children and Quranic teachers interviewed.
Justice and Government Efforts to Protect Talibés
Despite the continued abuse, neglect and exploitation suffered by many _talibé _children, by early 2019, the National Assembly had not yet passed the 2013 draft law – approved by the Council of Ministers in June 2018 – to establish legal standards for daaras, and officials rarely closed daaras that posed health and safety risks to children.
Senegalese President Macky Sall, re-elected in February 2019 to a second term, has previously stated his desire to end child begging and remove children from the streets. However, this rhetoric has not been accompanied by consistent, decisive and far-reaching action to protect talibé children subject to abuse and exploitation across the country. Government initiatives – such as social assistance projects for talibés and daaras, and the program to “remove children from the streets” in Dakar – have been limited in scale and inconsistent, with minimal impact. State child protection services across all regions are few and under-resourced.
According to local child protection experts, only a few communities managed to reduce the number of talibés begging in the streets since 2016, primarily due to efforts by civil society and local government. These include the Dakar municipalities of Médina and Gueule Tapée-Fass-Colobane, where mayors issued decrees in 2016 banning begging locally and requiring that daaras meet health and safety standards. With support from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), the mayor’s offices worked in partnership with community members to enforce the municipal decrees.
Though Senegal has strong domestic laws banning child abuse, endangerment, human trafficking and “the exploitation of begging” (detailed in Section I of this report), these laws were inconsistently enforced against abusive Quranic teachers in 2017 and 2018. Investigations and convictions for abuses remained limited, and charges were dropped or reduced by judges or public prosecutors in a number of cases.
“The Senegalese people are tired of the government advancing on this issue and then retreating,” said Mamadou Wane, president of PPDH. “Everyone knows there is enormous suffering in certain daaras. It’s time for the government to take concrete action to protect talibé children and end the abuse.”
Urgent Actions Needed
Given the scale and severity of the abuses documented in this report, the new Senegalese government should urgently commit to taking comprehensive measures to end the abuse, bring perpetrators to justice, strengthen child protection services, and inspect and regulate existing daaras nation-wide.
Anyone, including Quranic teachers, found to be forcing children to beg for money should face investigation and prosecution under Senegal’s 2005 anti-trafficking law. Any teacher who has beaten, chained, or otherwise physically or sexually abused the talibés in his care should also be prosecuted. Parents that intentionally send or return children to exploitative or abusive daaras should face legal penalties for knowingly exposing their children to abuse. When pursuing such legal remedies, authorities should consider what measures would be in the best interests of the child, including whether a relative or alternative appointed guardian is available to care for the child.
Government programs to reduce child begging should be expanded beyond Dakar to reach the thousands of talibés begging in other regions, and the government should make funding available to daaras that prioritize education and respect children’s rights. As part of its national child protection strategy, the government should strengthen its child protection mechanisms, including by providing adequate resources to children’s shelters and child protection services nationwide.
The government should also ensure that social workers and child protection committee members immediately notify the police or public prosecutor of cases of suspected talibé abuse, forced begging or neglect. This should include all cases where talibé children said they were beaten for failing to meet a begging quota; where a Quranic teacher failed to ensure timely medical treatment for a sick or injured child; and where talibés were injured or killed in a car accident while begging or in a daara fire while the marabout was absent.
Police officers in all regions should promptly conduct investigations into cases of suspected child abuse or exploitation by Quranic teachers, including by following up with social workers and visiting the daaras in question.
Finally, it is crucial that existing daaras be subject to regulation and inspections. Any daaras endangering children’s health and safety should be reported to the mayor’s office or prefecture, which should proactively inspect and close down such daaras, as was done in the Dakar municipalities of Médina and Gueule Tapée-Fass-Colobane. To implement national standards for daara operation – and, ideally, contribute to development of national policies on regulation and inspection – the National Assembly should urgently pass the draft law on the status of daaras.