SENEGAL: Government acts on child begging after fire kills nine in care of renegade teacher

Summary: Government plans to shut substandard Islamic schools after fire shows risks to children forced to earn money for teachers.

[17 April 2013] - 

fire in March that left nine children dead and a country in shock has prompted the Senegalese government to finally take action on the sensitive issue of the talibés, children who are forced to beg on the streets.

Around 45 talibés were trapped in a small room built of wood in the Medina district of Dakar after their marabout, a religious man entrusted with their Islamic education and wellbeing, locked them in and headed off for the night.

Marabouts in Senegal have received a lot of international criticism since a 2010 Human Rights Watch report revealed how many force children to beg so they can turn profit for themselves.

The fire on 3 March, believed to have been started by a candle that had been knocked over, has drawn nationwide condemnation of the marabouts in Senegalese society and triggered debate over how best to deal with this sensitive religious and political issue.

In an address to the country, President Macky Sall promised to close all Qur'anic schools that didn't meet basic safety standards. He told the local press that the government would identify all those schools that fail to meet standards and close them to stop the exploitation of children.

In the coming months, the Senegalese government is expected to unveil an ambitious plan that will regulate the Qur'anic schools, known as daaras, and put an end to children begging on the streets by the end of next year.

"The plan hopes to rejuvenate a law drafted in 2007 that regulates the daaras by introducing operating norms and standards, as well as evaluating and identifying daaras that need to be shut down," said Amsatou Sow Sidibe, a presidential adviser.

Two other laws on child begging and child trafficking have rarely been enforced because of contradictions in the legal system and pressure from religious quarters that still wield considerable political and economical influence within the country.

"[Child] traffickers take refuge behind article 245 of the penal code, which contradicts the 2005 law and states that soliciting alms as part of religious traditions is not an act of begging. What's more, there is intense lobbying and pressure from some Qur'anic masters whenever the government takes drastic measures against child trafficking," said Sidibe.

Parents sending their children away with marabouts in an informal system known as confiage is not a new phenomenon in Senegal. The parents see this as an opportunity for the child to learn about Islam but poverty often plays an important role in this decision. The victims of the fire were aged between seven and 12, and came from the Kolda region, one of the poorest areas of Senegal.

"Senegal allocates just 0.8% of its budget to the ministry of family, which is responsible for social safety nets," said Jean Lieby, head of child protection for Unicef Senegal. "Unicef is piloting a 'cash transfer' programme that aims to give impoverished parents grants so they can feed, clothe and protect their children from abuse, exploitation and trafficking."

Meanwhile, a parallel search and rescue type operation, which is also funded by Unicef, in urban centres including Dakar and Kolda identifies vulnerable children and reintegrates them with their families, many of whom have no idea of their child's suffering.

Mariama Diao, who sent her son, Mamadou, away with a travelling marabout from Guinea-Bissau, only found out how her son was suffering when a talibé from the same daara in Dakar told her that Mamadou had run away.

"We sent Mamadou away with the marabout to learn about Islam, but we didn't hear from him in four years," said Diao, from Guiré Yéro, a small village near the border with Guinea-Bissau. "The last time the marabout came back to the village, he told us Mamadou was doing fine, that he was not just begging, but also learning the Qur'an, even though he didn't know where Mamadou was," she said.

"Marabouts who mistreat children in this way should be punished with the full force of the law," Diao added.

Mamadou was eventually found and returned to his family by La Lumière, a local NGO that reintegrates children into their communities. According to the NGO, some parents had been told by marabouts that their children were dead when they were not.

The mistreatment of children has prompted some religious leaders to speak up against child begging. Just weeks before the fire, a highly respected relgious leader had told parents to stop sending their children away with marabouts in an article in the daily Le Quotidien that was seen as the first time such a high-ranking Khalife had spoken out publicly on the issue of talibés.

"Stop sending your children to study outside of your locality. There, they are good for begging, hard work and beatings," said Khalife Thierno Amadou Baldé, the 70-year-old spiritual leader of the Peuhl people. His intervention has been seen as possibly heralding a shift back to the old system of confiage, where Qur'anic schools were part of the village and parents could supervise their children. However, such alignment between political and religious powers has drawn suspicion.





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