“Abdoulaye Ba, 10, looked right, then left, before timidly approaching the taxi and holding out his hand.” A 10-year-old begging is nothing new in Dakar, “but the fear in his eyes is” (http://ow.ly/2Ey8f). A few days ago police chased him away from the intersection where he used to beg as part of a national ban on begging. Now he hangs around a gas station under the police’s radar, where he earns half of what he did.
Child begging is a big problem in Senegal. One significant reason why is because of the number of children forced to beg by religious teachers known as “Marabouts”. Boys as young as three are sent out into chaotic streets and forced to earn a daily amount of money. An estimated 100,000 children are forced to beg every day by Marabouts, some of whom make as much as $100,000 a year; this is shocking in a country where people live on about $2 per day.
Many Marabouts conscientiously carry out the important tradition of providing young boys with a religious and moral education at Koranic schools called Daaras. However, some Senegalese Marabouts are using education as a front for the economic exploitation of children. They are accused of recruiting young boys from all over Senegal and neighboring countries to enroll in their schools, then forcing them to beg on the streets. They do this under threats of sever physical harm, while taking the profits and leaving the children without proper clothing, food, shelter or education.
These children are recruited for exploitation; they are trafficked. Such exploitation is in stark contrast to the custom of Marabout-led Koranic schools which have operated across West Africa for centuries providing moral education and guardianship to children.
Nobody objects to this form of exploitation because in Senegal’s mainly Muslim society, religious leaders wield massive social and political power and people have traditionally been able to trust Marabouts. Also, begging is seen as an important cultural act and one of ‘zakat’ (charity). It is argued that begging ‘builds character’, ironically meaning that it instills humility. All these factors make it easy for unscrupulous Marabouts to justify making a lucrative gain off the backs of children and get away with it.
Even though police are now cracking down on begging, the ban isn’t motivated by a state desire to protect children from forced begging. The real reason is money. If Senegal finds itself another year on the U.S. trafficking watch list, and are not seen to be doing something about it, the U.S. could stop sending a huge amount of aid.
But is rounding up beggars the right solution? Abdoulaye says: “My teacher told me that if I see a policeman I should run. But he still makes me beg. At night he counts the money and I get in trouble if I don’t bring back 500 francs” (around $1). Will the unscrupulous Marabouts simply find other ways to make the children in their “care” beg, driving them further underground?