Dakar, Senegal - A leading international rights group called on Senegal's government Thursday to clamp down on Islamic schools whose leaders are subjecting tens of thousands of children to forced begging and daily beatings in conditions it says are "akin to slavery."
Powerful religious leaders known as "marabouts" hold enormous political influence in this mostly Muslim West African nation. Parents often send their children to traditional Quranic schools run by marabouts, both because they hope their children will receive a religious education and because they are free.
But some marabouts have turned the schools into an exploitative, unregulated private industry, banking tens of thousands of dollars in annual profits by forcing droves of children as young as four into the streets to beg for change, according to a new report released by New York-based Human Rights Watch. Children who return without enough money are often brutally beaten, the group said.
The tiny boys can often be seen wandering barefoot in the capital, Dakar, in small groups without adult supervision, swarming cars and passers-by. Often dressed in ragged, torn clothes, they beg long after midnight, returning to sleep 30 to a room in abandoned or half-constructed buildings that offer little protection from the elements, Human Rights Watch said.
One of them, 11-year-old Abdou Sow, told The Associated Press he had been sent by his parents in northern Senegal to a Quranic school in Dakar three years ago. He has spent most of his time since begging, and his marabout expects him to bring back at least 250 West African francs per day - about 50 U.S. cents - and "hits us a lot harder when we don't give him enough."
"He has a black whip that he dips into a bucket of water," said a clearly terrified Sow. "Every time he uses it, the blows scar us."
Of the estimated 50,000 child beggars like Sow in Senegal, some 1,000 run away each year. Sow, however, said he was too afraid to flee. Several children who fled his Quranic school were recaptured, he said, and then beaten even harder than before.
Presidential spokesman and Religious Affairs Minister Bamba Ndiaye acknowledged children are being "exposed to danger," but said a law passed in 2005 banning the practice could not make the phenomenon disappear on its own.
"You can never forget that this is a social phenomenon and, above all, a religious phenomenon ... the change has to come from the religious communities first," Ndiaye said. He added that parents also bear responsibility for sending their children to the schools and need to be educated on the risks children face.
Some children have been beaten to death or tortured by their marabouts, while some have been killed by cars in traffic. A handful of marabouts have been prosecuted for unlawful killings, but no marabout has been charged or tried solely for the crime of forced begging and the practice continues unabated.
The government is hesitant to try religious leaders because they wield enormous social, political, and economic power across the country, according to Human Rights Watch. One government official who pushed for the prosecution of a marabout who had severely beaten a three-year-old child received death threats.
"Senegal should not stand by while tens of thousands of ... children are subjected every day to beatings, gross neglect, and, in fact, conditions akin to slavery," said Georgette Gagnon, the group's Africa director.
Human Rights Watch says most of the children are between the ages of four and 12, and many are from neighboring countries, especially Guinea-Bissau.
In its report, the rights group documented myriad beatings, including incidents in which children were "chained, bound, and forced into stress positions as they were beaten."
The children suffer from skin diseases, malaria, stomach parasites and malnutrition, the report said. And when they get sick, they are often forced to beg overtime to pay for medicine.
Those who buy new clothes have had them confiscated by their marabouts - who give them to their own children instead.
The religious leaders, meanwhile, collect between $20,000 to $60,000 per year from their child beggars, and some gain as much as $100,000, the rights group said.
"Instead of marabouts ensuring that the boys in their care have food, education, and proper shelter, all too often the young boys become the means to provide for the marabout and his family," Gagnon said. "This is unconscionable."
More than 1,000 of the boys run away from the schools every year.
Human Rights Watch said none of the religious schools - apart from a few sponsored by the state - are regulated by government.
"The rampant abuse of these children will only be eradicated when the government stands up to religious authorities and brings offending marabouts to book," Gagnon said.