2 Dec 2010

Thousands of children in Senegal are virtual slaves to religious leaders who force them to beg for money

New York Times - April 15, 2010

Senegal Urged to Rein in Religious Schools

By ADAM NOSSITER


DAKAR, Senegal — Thousands of children in Senegal are forced to beg on the streets under the pretext that they are receiving religious instruction, Human Rights Watch said in a report Thursday that urged the government to crack down on the long-established phenomenon.

At least 50,000 such children are on the streets of this impoverished West African nation’s cities, the report said, “subjected to conditions akin to slavery.”

Brandishing begging bowls and tin cans at passers-by and motorists, they collect coins for religious leaders who have promised their parents that they will be given instruction in the Koran. In fact, the children’s principal duty is often to support the religious leaders, the report said.

The children, some trafficked in from neighboring Guinea-Bissau, are forced to sleep sometimes 30 to a room in filth and deprivation, with inadequate food, then are sent back to the streets each day to meet a begging “quota.” If they fail to meet it, they are often subjected to “swift and severe” physical abuse, the report said.

“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,” the report said.

All over this city, the sight of squadrons of small, ragged children with hands extended and begging bowls thrust forward is a familiar one. Motorists stopped in traffic or leaving their cars are routinely solicited, and pedestrians, particularly Westerners, cannot walk on downtown streets without being stopped for coins by the children, many well under the age of 10. The tiny children run in and out of traffic, unsupervised by any adult.

“By no means do all” the religious schools engage in the practice, the report said, but it said hundreds did. Human Rights Watch criticized Senegal for failing to enforce current laws that make it illegal to force others to beg and to abuse children, and for not regulating the schools, called daaras, where the children are kept.

While criticizing the role of parents who turn over their children to religious leaders, or marabouts, with little consideration of how they will be treated, the group laid principal blame squarely on the Senegalese government.

“Given the widespread nature of this problem, only with a government response will it be effectively eradicated,” said Matthew Wells, author of the report.

A government spokesman, Bamba Ndiaye, said the problem was a difficult one to regulate with laws. “The phenomenon is complex because it is tied to religion,” Mr. Ndiaye said. “Those who send their children to the daara say it is to learn the Koran, and that is the best possible thing.”

“The solution is not simply to create a law,” he said. “It’s to create conditions that will change the problem. The whole problem stems from separation of church and state. In our Constitution, it says religious communities regulate themselves.”


This article was found at:

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/16/world/africa/16senegal.html

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