Monday, November 5, 2012

Forced Begging in Senegal

By Nicole Vander Meulen

WikiMediaCommons, Barry Pousman
As soon as the taxi stopped, I noticed a few young boys dart out into the street.  They were each holding a rusty tin can, which they shoved into open car windows, waiting for a generous individual to drop a few coins in.  At that time I assumed (along with most visitors to Dakar, Senegal) that these children were simply begging on the street so that they could feed themselves.  The reality was, in fact, worse.

Instead, many of these children were actually being forced to beg for the economic benefit of corrupt religious teachers.  Traditionally, young children in Senegal were sent to learn the Koran at religious schools (daaras) where the religious leader (marabout) was either an extended family member or a man from their village.  In exchange for religious instruction, the children would help the marabout cultivate his land and would go to the homes of community members to collect food donations.  Any begging that did occur was used to teach the children humility, not as a means of economic gain.  Currently, some corrupt urban marabouts force a number of their 40-100 students to beg on the streets.  With the children separated from their communities and often unable to contact their parents, they are now left very vulnerable to this sort of exploitation.  Some of these corrupt teachers don’t even know the Koran.

Human Rights Watch estimates that there are around 50,000 children who are being forced to beg in Senegal.  These children who are usually between the ages of five and fourteen, often work for nearly eight hours a day.  During that time they are in danger of contracting diseases and being hit by cars, as well as being abused by adults on the street.  Their situation does not improve much when they return to the daaras at night, where the children often sleep on the ground, thirty to a room, and face physical and mental abuse if they have not met their daily quota.  Additionally, they are usually not provided with sufficient food or given access to healthcare when it is needed.  Instead, the marabouts often pocket the money and use it for themselves.  During this time, the children not only do often not learn the Koran, but they are also kept from attending school of any sort. 

Although a law was enacted 2005, making it illegal to force someone to beg for your economic benefit, it has only been enforced to a very minimal degree.  In fact, 2010 was the first time any marabouts were prosecuted, and although the seven that were charged were found guilty, they were only put on probation for six months.  This caused many people to see the ruling as merely an attempt to appease foreign donors.  Although in the place of legal enforcement the government has built modern daaras, which are subject to government regulation, there are too few in existence to make a substantial difference. 

Relevant International Treaty Law   

The economic exploitation inherent in the practice of forced begging, and the government’s failure to punish marabouts who partake in it, poses a human rights problem under the Covenant on the Rights of the Child (CRC) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR).  Senegal is a state party to both.  Article 32 of the CRC affirms that it is the state’s duty to protect children from economic exploitation and from participating in any form of work that interferes with their education and any work that is dangerous or harmful to their development.  Article 10 section 3 of the ICESCR, which says that the state is responsible for ensuring that children are not economically exploited, is also implicated. Forced begging also seems to be at odds with Article 19 of the CRC. which obliges the state to protect children from all forms of abuse or neglect, whether physical or mental, while in the care of any person.  In addition to the articles that are more obviously implicated by forced begging, the child’s right to education and to play (as laid out in Article 28 and Article 31 of the CRC, respectively) are also areas of concern.    

Moving Forward

Senegal has long been a leader for other West African countries in many areas.  Senegal needs to continue that role by dealing with the problem of forced begging.  Although as of 2010 it seemed the state might actually go after these corrupt marabouts, it appears that these prosecutions truly were just a means of appeasing foreigners.  This suggests that international pressure alone is not sufficient to get any real change on the ground.  Furthermore, only putting pressure on the state is also unlikely to create change since politicians know that going against the desires of the Muslim brotherhoods is politically very dangerous.  Candidates for president may lose a significant number of votes if they push the brotherhoods too far because Caliphs (the leader of a brotherhood) can issue calls for the brotherhood’s members to vote for the opposition.        

Instead, civil society groups within Senegal (for example, the plateforme pour la protection et la promotion des droits humains, or PPDH, a coalition of fifty civil society groups working on this issue) need to work within the Muslim brotherhoods to educate marabouts (especially those higher up in the hierarchy) and pressure them to regulate daaras more closely, punish corrupt marrabouts, and allow the state to implement the law that is already in place.  The main role for foreigners could be to help the government fund the creation of additional modern daaras that are subject to government regulation.  As noted above, the government has already done this to some degree but additional daaras are needed.           

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