Slowing to a stop at an intersection in the developing world, it’s not uncommon to look out the car window and see children – often clad in tattered clothes or without shoes – buzz into traffic to solicit donations.
The West African nation of Senegal is no different, except that many of these youngsters are "students" at informal religious schools called Daaras – and their begging is said to be a part of their Quranic education.
It is a system that is deeply ingrained in the country's Muslim history and culture, but while some say begging teaches humility, others argue it is simply a way for religious leaders to exploit poor children for their own monetary gain.
“The ... phenomenon is ancient, it is religious education,” says Senegalese President Macky Sall, who was in Cambridge, Mass., this month as part of Harvard University's African Development Conference. “But it is very informal and has not been supported by the government, which has led to some abuse.”
This abuse is an issue that President Sall, who is one year into his term, has already had to confront.
Called talibés, from the Arabic word for student, these boys are generally between 4 and 13 years old and come from poor families throughout the country and neighboring Guinea Bissau. They spend a large portion of each day begging for money and food on the streets – with scant time spent in a classroom under adult supervision. Begging is an accepted way to teach the Islamic tenet of humility, something that is well understood in a nation that is 95 percent Muslim (though wealthier families don’t turn to Daaras to teach these lessons).
Living conditions for talibés are dismal, often consisting of cramped quarters, flaps of cardboard for beds, and unsanitary surroundings.
The extreme day-to-day reality faced by these young boys was once again brought to the fore this month when a fire ripped through a Dakar-based Daara housing scores of youth, killing nine of the children.
“This is a tragedy…. It is something we regret,” Sall told The Christian Science Monitor just days after the deadly fire.
Human rights organizations have repeatedly denounced Daara-related abuse: Seven children killed in the March fire were locked in their room, unable to escape. A 2010 Human Rights Watch report called their conditions “akin to slavery,” noting that, based on interviews with 175 former and current talibés, the children are “forced to endure often extreme forms of abuse, neglect, and exploitation by the teachers, or marabouts, who serve as their de facto guardians.”
“[Talibés] are at the center of an intense and longstanding social debate” in Senegal, says Leonardo Villalón, associate professor of African Studies at the University of Florida and author of “Islamic Society and State Power in Senegal.”
“It comes down to human rights issues. Is this child abuse or is it not?” Mr. Villalón says.
Villalón says the fire was awful, but he worries that some people, particularly outside of Senegal may “jump from there to say Islamic schools are bad.”
Daaras are “very legitimate,” he says, noting that the vast majority of Senegalese seek some form of religious instruction. The state incorporated religious education – typically Islam, due to the population breakdown, but Christianity as well – into public education in the early 2000s. “The conditions [of Daaras] are a real problem, but it’s a problem rooted in … poverty.”
“Boys are often sent to Daaras in urban centers [by families] believing they are providing their children with an opportunity to learn the tenets of Islam,”
Mohamed Chérif Diop, a child protection specialist at the Senegal-based, international nongovernmental organization Tostan, says via e-mail. The children are able to receive an education without having to pay for food or fees for school, and many parents feel they are helping their child create a brighter future for himself by sending him to a Daara.
"It is the families who make the decision to send their children to the Daara, choosing a particular marabout [teacher] because of family connections or because of a marabout’s reputation for being a good teacher," Mr. Diop says.
There are already laws on the books in Senegal to curb begging by minors, such as a 2005 law passed by former President Abdoulaye Wade that carries a maximum five year sentence and fines for sending children out to beg. The law – which was reinforced in 2010 – clearly hasn’t been effectively enforced, though, and some ask whether or not the government must target the Daaras themselves.
No law has yet been passed that lays out minimum standards for all Quranic schools, but Sall says the government has made the decision to stop “this kind of institution, and help the [country’s] rightful religious schools educate in better conditions and give children a better environment” in which to learn.
“We’re working very hard on that,” says Sall, who worked in President Wade’s 12-year administration before defeating him with nearly 66 percent of the vote in a runoff last March.
What “better conditions” means exactly is yet to be seen. Sall says the government will close the Daaras based on investigations carried out by the police and ministry of welfare, and will involve religious associations.
“It will be very important work [involving] social dialogue to find an appropriate solution,” Sall says.
The government’s program to modernize the Daaras could eventually be a solution to the many problems associated with these informal schools and religious education, Diop says. But all levels of society must be involved in the process.
“Collaboration and mutual support for the protection of our children are essential at all levels – from the government to the grassroots – to create sustainable social transformation.”