For years, human rights activists in Senegal and internationally have objected to the phenomenon of “talibes,” or children who ask for alms in order to support their studies with Qur’anic teachers. Opponents of the practice call it child begging, or child exploitation, and charge that talibes often gain little from a relationship that is more economic and predatory than educational or nurturing. Defenders of the system say that it does inculcate spiritual values and that the relationship between children and teachers is not that of prey and predators.
Now the debate is intensifying, because the Senegalese government began cracking down on street begging on August 26th. The AP says this move resulted from US pressure:
Senegal’s penal code outlawed begging years ago, but officials say they recently felt pressure to impose the law because the U.S. has threatened to cut off aid if Senegal does not address human trafficking. Although they say numerous other donor countries as well as the World Bank have also pushed Senegal to address child begging, a letter from the U.S. Embassy made it clear they needed to take action now.
“We are trying to do what our partners have asked us to do — like the U.S.,” said Abdoulaye Ndiaye, the deputy to the ministry of justice, who said the letter explained the economic sanctions the country could face if it fails to address its trafficking problem, which includes child begging.
For the past two years, Senegal has been cited on the U.S. State Department’s trafficking ‘watch list,’ in part because of the number of children forced to beg by religious teachers known as marabouts. If the country is listed for a third consecutive year, the U.S. could halt bilateral aid to Senegal.
In 2009, Senegal received more than $85 million in economic aid from the U.S., according to the U.S. State Department’s website. Senegal is set to start receiving a $540 million aid package through the U.S. Millenium Challenge Corporation. It is unclear what portion of this aid could be cut off as a result of failing to improve the trafficking problem.
U.S. officials say the way to show improvement is not by rounding up beggars but by prosecuting those who force them to beg.
The crackdown quickly met major resistance, with some powerful religious leaders promising to use the issue to unseat President Abdoulaye Wade in the 2012 elections.
The most prominent incident during the crackdown so far has been the arrest of seven Qur’anic teachers, a move that ups the ante for both the government and the religious leaders who oppose the ban.
Leaving aside the moral aspects of the issue, the political aspects carry weight as well. Wade’s regime courted unpopularity through the summer, during the electricity crisis and now with the controversy over the talibes. The religious leaders who believe they can take Wade down may be able to make good on their threat, especially if problems continue to mount in different areas. Though problems like power outages and street begging may not seem related at first, if more and more Senegalese come to see economic and political failure as the common denominator, Wade’s regime may face real trouble.