Last year I went to the West African country of Senegal, where I got to see the Door of No Return, believed by some historians to be the spot where African slaves boarded ships bound for the sugar and cotton plantations of Brazil, America, and the Caribbean during the Trans-Atlantic slave trade.
Visiting places like this is sobering. Haunting. Yet there’s a relief there too. At least it’s no longer happening, we say.
But according to a recent Human Rights Watch report, just a few kilometres from the Door of No Return in the capital city of Dakar, slavery is rampant today. And the slaves are children.
They’re called talibés.
Wanting their children to get a traditional education and good morals, parents in rural parts of Senegal and Guinea-Bissau send their young boys to big cities to attend traditional Islamic schools called daaras. But the schools are unregulated. Over the years, the Quranic teachers – known as marabouts – have started taking advantage of this system, forcing the children to beg on the streets.
“The idea behind the begging is that it will give them practice in humility,” a local Senegalese man told me when I was in Dakar. “But the kids just end up being abused.”
The median salary in Dakar, Senegal’s capital, is $1,784 USD per year. A marabout can usually make between $20,000 and $60,000 USD a year from what the boys bring in. The children are often beaten or chained if they don’t bring enough money. They’re also subjected to:
- sexual abuse (by the marabouts, their staff, or people on the street)
- psychological abuse (not being able to see family)
- traffic accidents (from begging on the road)
- fumes from car pollution
- disease and injury (children are forced to beg overtime to pay for medicine)
The conditions are so poor that approximately 1,000 talibés escape from their marabouts every year.
“Waking up at five in the morning is not an easy thing for a child. To obtain money, however possible, only to pass it on to the marabout is far more challenging. You have to walk for hours in the sun and go from house to house, which is often humiliating. Some people give you nothing and call you all kinds of bad things.”
Shortly after returning home from Senegal last year, I was happy to see that the Senegalese government had allotted money to the Ministry of Women, Family, and Childhood to clamp down on begging. In a push called “Remove Children From the Streets,” they identified more than 1,500 kids as potential forced begging victims, brought them to shelters, and notified their families.
But they put the cart before the horse, as the saying goes.
The government didn’t have enough resources to take care of the kids, so they returned hundreds of children to the very places they were being exploited. There has been no follow-up or monitoring, and not a single Quranic teacher has been arrested for forcing talibé children to beg on the street. This despite hundreds of children telling the police they’d been victimized.
Exploitative traditions that have been embedded into culture are difficult to dismantle, because doing so threatens people’s identity. Talibés have been a part of the culture for so long that, as one local told me, some organizations have decided to focus on other issues instead of taking on one that is met with so much hostility and resistance.
Sometimes, the most effective solution for a cultural problem is a cultural solution. This could be reminding people of their values. If humility is a virtue that parents expect their children to learn in a daara, for example, could there be other ways to teach it that don’t involve humiliation? If education and memorization are strong values, perhaps it would be beneficial to teach people that children can absorb more knowledge when they’re fed and feel safe. Sometimes, it takes a personal plea to create change – like this man, who convinced his own family not to send his siblings to a daara.
So culture can be part of the solution. But there must also be state intervention. Teachers who are profiting off the exploitation of children need to know that they will be prosecuted, or they will continue running their operations with impunity.
Every year, the U.S. State Department releases a report on human trafficking. Every country receives a tier ranking (from tier one, the best ranking, to tier 3, the lowest) based on their commitment to end human trafficking. Those with a low ranking may face sanctions and other economic repercussions.
Because of poor law enforcement efforts against unscrupulous marabouts exploiting children in forced begging, the U.S. State Department Trafficking in Persons Report downgraded Senegal to the tier two watchlist in 2016. This means that the Senegalese government “doesn’t fully meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking, but is making significant efforts to do so.”
Due to the failed effort of “Remove Children from the Streets,” the 2017 TIP report kept Senegal on the watchlist. If it doesn’t rise to tier 2 in next year’s report, it will be bumped down to a Tier 3.
As someone who has visited this vibrant country, I’m cheering for Senegal. This is a critical year for its government to make some big changes. Mounting international pressure will encourage this, but hopefully a cultural shift will happen from within.
Change often happens in fits and starts, and the government’s failure last year can serve as a launch pad for something new and effective. I hope that next year’s TIP report will be a pleasant surprise.