Annie Vulpas is a MPH intern from The University of Illinois - Chicago with IOFA. She reflects on her experience studying abroad as an undergraduate student in Senegal and bearing witness to a human rights violation.
It wasn’t until recently that I realized I had been a witness of child trafficking everyday for nearly a year. To the group of American women studying abroad at the Université Gaston Berger in Saint Louis, Senegal, the talibés were mainly a nuisance and many techniques were employed to avoid the filthy, poorly dressed little boys begging for money. Sometimes we changed directions or crossed the street while walking when we saw a talibé coming; other times, we rudely ignored them or told them “bayyi ma!” (leave me alone!).
The word talibé is from the Arabic word for student – talib. The talibés in Senegal are young boys enrolled in Qur’anic schools, called daara in Wolof, where they live, often hundreds of miles from home. In many of the daaras, boys are sent out early in the morning and forced to beg all day long for money, about $1-2 (500-1,000 fCFA), rice and sugar each day. Failing to return with the required amount of goods or cash, the talibés will not be fed and are often brutally beaten. The Qur’anic teachers, or Marabouts, are responsible for the treatment of these children and support their schools, which are often unsanitary and built out of poor building materials such as plastic and corrugated tin.
As a young woman in my early 20’s, I acknowledged that something was wrong with the talibé situation in Senegal but acceptance of talibé begging by the general population clouded my understanding of the issue. Many people saw the talibé experience as a rite of passage and since they begged as children, it only made sense that their children would also enroll in a daara under the tutelage of a Marabout. Now, interning with IOFA and learning of the various ways that children are trafficked, I can see a bigger picture and, sadly, understand the crime that I bore witness to in Senegal.
According to the 2013 Trafficking in Persons Report, Senegal – categorized as a Tier 2 country – is a “source, transit, and destination country for children and women who are subjected to forced labor, forced begging, and sex trafficking.” Other forms of trafficking in Senegal include prostitution, domestic servitude and forced labor. The government supports various shelters and rehabilitation programs in Senegal that provide shelter, food, medical and psychological care to victims of trafficking but statistics related to trafficking prosecutions and convictions are not maintained or published. It is believed that approximately 50,000 boys between the ages of 3 and 19 are forced to beg for their daaras.
Reflecting on my interaction with the talibés during that year, I feel a sense of guilt. Although I was kind – or hoped I was kind to them – I feel guilt for being aware of the issue and instead of addressing my beliefs, letting others dictate my understanding of the situation. The widespread moral disengagement of the Senegalese, or self-conviction that ethical standards do not apply to certain situations such as the forced begging of talibés, is fueling the abuse of these children. Efforts have been made by various organizations in recent years to end the forced begging of talibés as awareness of the issue is growing, but such an obvious violation of human rights must be ended. The boys of Senegal deserve to spend their days in classrooms learning rather than out in the streets begging and being rudely told to “go away” by unknowing and apathetic passersby.
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