Senegal turns to Islam to stop child ‘disciples’ from begging

Senegal is increasingly turning to Islamic texts and the powerful sway of religious leaders to prevent thousands of children being sent to beg by their Koranic teachers in the name of religion.

The West African country has come under fire from human rights groups over the rising phenomenon, as poverty leads more and more parents to send children off to Koranic schools where some are exploited by unscrupulous marabouts.

At a conference seeking to find a solution to Senegal’s problem of child-begging on Wednesday, Islamologist Abdou Aziz Kebe of the University Cheikh Anta Diop in Dakar argued that solutions lay with the Muslim faith.

“Child protection is not the prerogative of the Western world against an Islamic world which does not concern itself with its children. Muslims have produced texts on this question,” he said.

As an example Kebe quoted the 1981 universal Islamic Declaration of Human Rights which states: “Each child has the right to be looked after and properly raised by its parents. It is forbidden to employ children…”

The conference was organised by the Canadian embassy and Dakar-based human rights group RADDHO.

“As soon as we denounce begging [by children], we get accused of tapping into Western ideology. But it is possible to draw from human rights texts within Islam … it is a paradigm shift,” said RADDHO president Alioune Tine.

Forced to beg
According to a study by the World Bank, the United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef) and International Labour Office (ILO), some 7 800 children were begging on the streets of Dakar in 2007.

In April 2010 Human Rights Watch published a report saying at least 50 000 boys known as talibes [disciples], some as young as four-years-old, are “forced to beg on Senegal’s streets for long hours, seven days a week, by often brutally abusive teachers, known as marabouts”.

“The streets of our cities are overrun with children of all ages, all nationalities, barefoot, in rags, braving the cold with a penny in hand, to the benefit of shady adults hiding under the mantle of Koranic teacher,” Senegal’s Human Rights Minister Zandi Gaye told the conference.

Battling this one comes up against strong tradition in a country where rural families have long chosen a child to study Islam and the Koran under a marabout. Even President Abdoulaye Wade followed this path.

The marabout would be known to parents and the village and young disciples would sometimes be required to ask neighbours for mostly food to better understand poverty and humility.

But today children claim if they do not bring between 750 and 1000 Communauté Financiére Africaine franc (CFAF) to their marabouts they face beatings and other forms of abuse.

To combat this phenomenon in a country where 90% of the population is Muslim, religous leaders are being regularly put to use in the state media to denounce it.

Intergrate education
In a first for the country in September 2010 six Senegalese Koranic teachers and one from Guinea Bissau were convicted for sending children to the streets to beg, and given suspended sentences.

“Religious actors have often been ignored when it comes to street children. Now they have developed relevant initiatives” with the introduction of modern Islamic schools,” said Cheikh Ahmadou Bamba Diaw, a leader of the Partnership for the Withdrawal and Rehabilitation of Street Children.

Mamadou Gueye from the Collective of Koranic Schools in Senegal notes that “the problem of begging [children] can not be resolved without the involvement of Koranic teachers” who need assistance from government and non-government organisations to keep their disciples off the street.

However, lawmaker Imam Mbaye Niang says it is “impossible to support all the Koranic schools … and the solution is to integrate Koranic education into the national education system”. — Sapa-AFP

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