Human rights organizations in West Africa have been drawing attention to the problem of abused Koran students who are forced to beg for years. For a long time, the phenomenon of the so-called “Talibé” was concentrated on Senegal. “Recently, unscrupulous crooks have been increasingly using the business model of boarding schools in neighboring countries, such as my home country Guinea-Bissau. They are taking advantage of the sad fact that the state school system has practically collapsed here,” says Suleimane Embaló from the local child protection association AGLUCOMI-TSH.
Poor families in particular are encouraged to enroll their children in Koran schools, Embaló said. A practical side effect: With every talibé, these families would have one less family member to feed and house. But it was not uncommon for these children to end up on the streets as beggars. There they have to beg for money all day long, Embaló tells DW. If at all, they would only learn the Koran in the mornings and early evenings.
hunger and humiliation
The living conditions in the schools are in most cases unworthy: the little boys experience hunger, illness and humiliation. Those who are not compliant will be mistreated. “It’s all terrible. Begging is a factor in poverty and has nothing to do with religion,” says Suleimane Embaló.
Faced with public pressure, President Umaro Sissoco promised Embaló, himself a Muslim, to face the phenomenon with the full severity of the state. “Put the children in school and stop sending them to beg. This is not Islam,” he said to the school’s administrators. And gave his interior minister a clear order: “You have one week to get begging talibés off the streets. Whoever sends their child out onto the streets after March 27th will end up in jail,” the president threatened.
According to the Guinean Child Protection Association, there are 22 Koran schools called “Daaras” in Bissau. They are attended by 721 children between the ages of three and 18. At least 200 of them beg on the streets every day. 15 percent of them are said to be orphans.
“Perpetrators go unpunished”
“Guinea-Bissau is one of the countries that has signed and ratified international conventions in favor of children, but these provisions are not observed. Perpetrators usually go unpunished,” says child rights activist Suleimane Embaló. A Koran teacher was recently arrested, but was released from prison shortly afterwards without a trial.
“At the end of the day, it stays the same: the talibé who does not hand over a certain amount of money to the Koran teacher is physically and mentally abused.”
The problem of begging talibés has been getting worse for years in Guinea-Bissau and other West African countries
The chairman of the National Children’s Parliament of Guinea-Bissau, Leoni Fernando Dias, also called for severe penalties for the school operators in an interview with DW. “Often the Koran teachers justify themselves by sending children to beg because they have no money to support themselves. In that case, they should close their schools. You cannot run a Koran school if you are not able to support the livelihood of the people secure children,” he argues.
Origin in Senegal
The problem of begging talibés has been an ongoing issue in Guinea-Bissau for years. In the past, the media mostly reported on Koran students who were illegally deported to neighboring Senegal. At regular intervals, military patrols from Guinea-Bissau identified groups of children who were being secretly taken across the border to Senegal. Local and international media reported extensively on such cases.
“There were also reports, for example, of a daara in Touba, east of Dakar, where newly arrived children from Guinea-Bissau, Mali, Mauritania, Gambia and Mali were said to be chained until sufficiently broken and frightened were,” remembers child rights activist Suleimane Embaló. After that, Senegalese Koran teachers are said to have forced them to beg.
Similar to Guinea-Bissau and other countries in the region, there are no fixed regulations for opening a daara in Senegal. Any man can call himself a “marabout”, i.e. a Koran teacher. For this reason, there are marabouts in many places who have no interest in teaching children, but only exploit them, says Embaló.
The everyday life of many talibés is characterized by neglect, cruelty and danger. They have to beg on the streets every day. Most of the time, the children are given a sum that they have to hand over to their teacher in the evening. If they fail, they will be severely punished.
Children’s rights organizations report that children often have to beg for their own food because they do not receive any food. Their living conditions are otherwise inhuman. The talibés have to sleep on the floor. In addition, most of them have no access to running water, electricity or sanitary facilities.
Tens of thousands of talibés in the Sahel
Aid organizations suspect that there are more than 30,000 small talibés in Senegal’s capital Dakar alone. Nationwide there should be more than 80,000, the youngest are just three or four years old. However, not all of them beg. Daaras have a long tradition in the Sahel and are widespread. Also because of the growing poverty in the villages, many parents throughout the Sahel prefer to send their children to these free boarding schools rather than to public schools, which usually have to be paid for.
Since 2005 there has actually been a law in Senegal that forbids begging under duress. Anyone who incites children to do so can be sentenced to up to five years in prison. “Unfortunately, nobody cares about the law, nobody watches over it,” complains child rights activist Suleimane Embaló.
In Guinea-Bissau, President Umaro Sissoco Embaló has now pulled the ripcord – with an uncertain outcome. “It remains to be seen whether this measure will actually be implemented or whether it is an electoral maneuver in the course of the presidential and parliamentary elections scheduled for June,” says activist Suleimane Embaló.