The following piece is published as an honorable mention in the Harvard Human Rights Journal’s Winter 2021 Essay Contest. The contest, Beyond the Headlines: Underrepresented Topics in Human Rights, sought to share the work of Harvard University students with a broader audience and shed light on important issues that popular media may overlook.
The Plight of Talibé Children in Senegal
One of the most heartbreaking forms of human rights violations is the exploitation of children. Walking down the streets of Dakar, Senegal, it only takes a few minutes before you witness this atrocity. In Dakar and other cities across Senegal, boys – sometimes only 5 years old – spend their days in the streets, begging for rice or a few coins. The food they receive as charity or leftovers may be the only food they receive all day. Often, these children have no families or guardians. When they finish their day of begging, they return to the very people they wish they could escape. These boys are beaten into submission, punished for trying to run away, and deprived of all basic human rights by these abusers.
These young victims are called talibés. Talibés are students (predominantly boys between ages 5 and 15) that are studying the Qur’an with the guidance of a teacher, called a marabout. Many talibés live in daaras, which are residential schools where students study the Qur’an. Unfortunately, while most marabouts do provide a constructive and nurturing environment for students to study Islam, others subject young students to horrible living conditions and treatment. Many marabouts send talibés out into the streets to beg during the day.
And though their story is a familiar reality for most Senegalese people, it is rarely given the weight it deserves. In Senegal, very few people challenge this exploitative practice, and on the international level, even fewer know it exists. While some may want to dismiss this phenomenon as a manifestation of poverty, it is actually a grave human rights violation – one that is the product of government inaction, distorted traditions, and desperate families. And it is the story of over 100 thousand boys across Senegal.
Documentation of Human Rights Violations of Talibés
In 2019, Human Rights Watch (HRW) published a report documenting its findings when investigating the plight of talibés in cities across Senegal in 2018 and 2019. Beyond forced begging, talibés are subjected to physical abuse. For instance, many talibés reported that they were beaten by their marabouts if they did not bring back a certain amount of money from begging: One 12-year-old runaway talibé reported how “‘if you come late, they hit you. If you don’t bring the payment, they hit you. And if you don’t succeed at reciting the verses, they hit you.’” Other talibés testified to being imprisoned and chained by their marabout if they tried to escape. HRW also found evidence of 15 cases of actual or attempted sexual abuse.
In addition, talibés also suffer from various forms of neglect. For instance, the HRW report found that in 2018 two talibés died of malaria because they did not receive treatment in time and their marabout did not take them to a hospital early enough. A YouTube video later revealed the squalid conditions these boys were living in: The building had “crumbling walls, rubble on the ground, and no roof in places – leaving the children easily exposed to mosquitos and disease.” HRW also found other daaras with no soap, running water, or working toilets.
Furthermore, because talibés spend much of their day begging in the streets, they face many dangers from the outside world as well, especially in urban areas with busy traffic. For instance, one witness reported how a young talibé was hit by a bus because he was out begging: “‘A group of talibés had finished begging around noon and were crossing the street when a bus hit one of the talibés – it ran over his head, which was completely crushed.’” This danger is particularly prevalent when talibés are avoiding returning to the daara where they will be mistreated or punished for not meeting their daily monetary quota.
History of Talibés
How did we get here? Essentially, the talibé phenomenon is a tradition that was originally grounded in principles rooted in humility and community building. For centuries, Senegal has valued Islam. An important component of Islam is studying the Qur’an with the guidance and mentorship of marabouts. During their religious formation, talibés would study Qur’an and work to support the daaras. They often did so by collecting food donations from local villagers, who were encouraged to give because charity is a pillar in Islam and supporting the needy builds community ties. At its core, this educational system was meant to develop Muslim boys’ faith and build community through charity.
However, with urbanization, this educational system lost the support that familiar villages once provided. Talibés now need to beg from strangers in order to survive because there are no other support systems. Since this shift, many marabouts have recognized how child begging can actually be a source for profit and are exploiting these young children, especially in urban areas. This power comes from two main sources. First, there is currently no national framework that regulates daaras. Because Senegal is a secular state, there are no regulations that monitor daaras, which gives marabouts the freedom to exploit their talibés: “The lack of formality and regulation within this educational system has allowed some marabouts allegedly to open daaras as a source of income for themselves, further perpetuating the phenomenon of forced child begging.”
Second, though there is no formal Islamic curriculum, marabouts still continue to hold significant power in society. Senegal is predominantly Muslim. Islamic scholars are highly respected in society. Thus, it is difficult to speak out against them. In addition, marabouts know how to manipulate faith in order to continue the cycle of child-begging: “Because almsgiving is one of the five pillars of Islam … marabouts have historically been able to avoid the obligation of feeding their talibés by requiring them to beg on the street for their meals.” In other words, many marabouts use Muslims’ habit of giving to charity in order to evade their responsibilities. However, this is not proscribed in Islam at all and Islam actually opposes flagrant begging. Unfortunately, as with so many traditions, once a practice is said to be done in the name of faith, it is difficult to push back against it.
Naturally, these blatant human rights violations have resulted in serious outcry from people in the Senegalese and international communities. However, the talibé phenomenon is a complex issue that is difficult to report on and even more difficult to understand because of the different social, historical, political, and economic factors. This phenomenon is particularly difficult to grasp because there are many moving parts and several responsible actors. First, there are the marabouts. Marabouts are unquestionably one of the principal actors in this issue. While there are many kind and caring religious leaders, there are others that are physically and sexually abusing their students, and they must (and can) be stopped with stronger legislation, law enforcement, and investigations to hold them accountable. Their abuse is inexcusable.
In addition, the government also has a role to play in this issue, in particular when it comes to forced begging. Many families are only turning to daaras because they have no financial security net that they can depend on. As such, sending their child to a daara allows them to support the rest of their family: “The monetary gains they receive from the discharge of their children is directly equivalent to the opportunity cost of having one more mouth to feed.” Similarly, some daaras may be resorting to begging because they have no financial security net either. For instance, when HRW visited 22 daaras, they found that nearly half of them were struggling financially because parents were not contributing any money to the daara. Thus, some marabouts may feel they have no choice but to turn to the status quo of begging because there is no other funding source they can rely on. The government has the responsibility and opportunity to curb child begging by financially supporting families, so they do not need to give up their children. Likewise, the government could also support daaras so that well-intentioned marabouts do not need to resort to child begging to provide for their students.
One of the most well-known state initiatives by the Senegalese government is “le retrait des enfants de la rue” (removal of children from the streets), operationalized in 2016 and 2017. This program focused on rescuing talibés from the streets and returning them to daaras or to their families. Unfortunately, this initiative failed to create substantial change – efforts were mainly focused on Dakar – the nation’s capital – and this initiative did not sufficiently hold perpetrators accountable. In 2017, around 1,000 talibés were rescued, but hundreds of them returned to their teachers.
Lastly, it is important to also interrogate the role of family and society. Unquestionably, many families do not know the abuse that their children are suffering through. They hope and believe that daaras will educate, inspire, and protect their children. They trust religious leaders to give their children “the opportunity to study the Koran and the Islamic faith, thereby becoming ‘virtuous adult[s].’” All in all, economic pressures coupled with trust in religious leaders encourages society to maintain the status quo by sending children to daaras. This must change. Importantly however, social and cultural change should not and cannot happen through blame and condemnation. No parent wants to give their child up and it would be deeply self-righteous to look down on these families. Instead, it is important to encourage and educate our communities to interrogate their leaders and traditions – not in the hopes of uprooting or completely rejecting them, but in order to improve them and honor the true principles these traditions are meant to uphold.
Some of the more successful initiatives have included educating families and reuniting talibés with their parents. For example, Issa Kouyate founded Maison de la Gare, a non-profit that protects children who are abused in daaras in Saint Louis. An important part of his work is to help families realize that “‘this is not learning Quran. This is just exploitation … It’s slavery.’” One mother of a talibé explained how she had no idea about the horrid conditions her son was living in because whenever she called the marabout he would lie and tell her that her son was fine. Now, with the help of Maison de la Gare, she has been reunited with her son. In the son’s own words, “‘it is because of Issa that I’m alive.’”
As a Muslim Senegalese woman, I write these words not to come out against my country or its practices, but to encourage us to recognize the disastrous toll these practices are taking on our children, our families, and our society at large. I love my country and my religion, but without critically analyzing our traditions and culture, we will continue to misrepresent the true values of Islam. It is time that we hold our religious leaders, our politicians, and ourselves accountable. The future of our youth depends on it.
[*] Harvard University, A.B. Candidate 2023.
 Lauren Seibert, These Children Don’t Belong in The Streets, Human Rights Watch (Dec. 16, 2019) https://www.hrw.org/report/2019/12/16/these-children-dont-belong-streets/roadmap-ending-exploitation-abuse-talibes.
 Lauren Seibert, There Is Enormous Suffering, Human Rights Watch (June 11, 2019) https://www.hrw.org/report/2019/06/11/there-enormous-suffering/serious-abuses-against-talibe-children-senegal-2017-2018.
 Antoinette K. Zoumanigui, On the Talibé Phenomenon: A Look into the Complex Nature of Forced Child Begging in Senegal, 24 Int. J. Child. Rights 185, 186 (2016).
 Peter Yeung, Global Development: These Youths in Senegal are Supposed to be Studying Islam, But Many are Begging in The Streets, L.A. Times (May 5, 2019) https://www.latimes.com/world/africa/la-fg-senegal-children-talibes-begging-20190505-story.html.
 Tejumola Olaniyan, State and Culture Postcolonial Africa: Enchantings 227 (2017).
 Id. at 235.
 Bridget Carr, Forced Begging in Senegal, The Monitor, (2012), p 22, https://humantraffickingsearch.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/07/2-carr.pdf.
 HRW, supra note 3.
 HRW, supra note 1.
 Olaniyan, supra note 16, at 228.
 Lisa Cohen, Thousands of Boys Forced to Beg by Religious Schools in Senegal, CNN (Nov. 9, 2019) https://www.cnn.com/2019/11/08/africa/forced-child-begging-senegal-intl/index.html.