DAKAR (AFP) - Senegal is failing to protect thousands of boys in Islamic boarding schools from forced begging and torture at the hands of their teachers, a global human rights organisation said in a report released on Wednesday.
At least 50,000 boys known as talibes - the vast majority aged between four and 12 - are forced to beg in Senegal's streets most of the day, every day, by often brutally abusive Koranic teachers known as marabouts, according to campaigners.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) urged the west African nation to pass and enforce new laws to improve living conditions and end forced begging in a 43-page report entitled "Exploitation in the Name of Education: Uneven Progress in Ending Forced Child Begging in Senegal".
"After years of governments paying lip service to the need to regulate Koranic schools, President (Macky) Sall's government has drafted a law that would finally introduce minimum health, safety and educational standards," Matt Wells, HRW's west Africa researcher said in a statement released with the report.
"The authorities should waste no time in passing the law and making sure it's applied. Each day of inaction means that children suffer in abusive environments." In the Muslim-majority nation where these religious leaders wield enormous social and political power, children have long been entrusted to marabouts who educate them in Koranic schools, called daaras.
But research by New York-based HRW shows that in many city daaras, marabouts are using education as a cover to send the children out to beg, inflicting severe physical and psychological abuse on those who fail to meet daily quotas.
The dismal living conditions were brought to the fore in March last year when a fire ripped through a Dakar-based daara housing dozens of children, killing nine who were trapped in their room, unable to escape.
Sall pledged to take immediate action to close schools where boys live in unsafe conditions or were exploited by teachers but HRW says Senegal's record on addressing the problem since has been "mixed".
"In the year since the fire, Human Rights Watch is aware of only one prosecution specifically for forcing children to beg, despite the thousands of children who beg on the streets every day, often in plain view of police officers," the group said.
The report is based on interviews in October 2013 and January this year with activists, government officials, marabouts and past and present talibes who said they were beaten with whips and electrical cord, chained and forced into stress positions for long periods and burned.