By Misha Hussain
DAKAR, March 19 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A year after a fire killed eight children when it ripped through a Koranic school in Senegal, the government has failed to prosecute those responsible and to halt the abuse of young boys in Islamic education, Human Rights Watch said on Wednesday.
In the wake of the fire in the Medina district of Dakar, President Macky Sall pledged to impose state regulation on the Koranic school system, which involves 30,000 boys in the Senegalese capital alone.
Thousands of boys - many of them entrusted to Koranic teachers by rural families too poor to support them - are forced to beg on the streets of Dakar every day. Many of them live in cramped and squalid conditions and some are subjected to physical and even sexual abuse, rights groups say.
Matt Wells, West Africa researcher for Human Rights Watch, accused Sall's government of lacking the political will to prosecute renegade Koranic teachers and to push through a draft law to regulate the schools, known as daaras.
"I interviewed dozens of children who, simply because they did not collect the money demanded by their masters, were so savagely beaten they were left with scars," Wells said, adding that other students were chained up for a day at a time. "We must call this type of treatment by its real name: torture."
Wells said that, while thousands of teachers took good care of their children, a minority was taking advantage of the lack of government oversight to exploit their charges for profit.
Human Rights Watch said that forced child begging in Dakar is an industry worth at least $5 million a year. Over half the boys, known as talibes, spend up to 16 hours a day to bring in a minimum of 400 CFA francs ($0.85) each for their marabouts.
Amsatou Sow Sidibe, a presidential adviser, said some progress had been made by Sall's government in sensitising families not to send their children away and in returning runaways to their relatives.
The government is also completing a survey of daaras in Dakar to determine where abuse was taking place. "Once we have finalised this survey, we can start making decisions on which daaras to close down," said Sidibe.
If passed, the new law would oblige daaras to provide a good education and meet national health and safety standards.
A 2005 statute already allows those responsible for the mistreatment of talibes to be jailed for up to two years. However, since last year's fire, only one case has been brought to trial, with the marabout being convicted to just one month in jail.
Helena Said of Mozdahir International, a Dakar-based NGO, said she had received allegations that young boys at one daara in the capital were being prostituted for as little as $2 a day.
"Talibés from Guinea Bissau are being pimped by the older boys for 1,000 CFA francs ($2) per day per child to adult men who use them everyday," she said.
Human Rights Watch did not document any cases of prostitution but said sexual abuse by older boys took place.
"There is an ever-growing system built around the exploitation of a child," said Wells. "It starts with forced begging and beatings and from that it is just one step further."
Wells said some officials feared a backlash from the religious community because the government had never before tried to regulate religious schools. However, he said the government needed to explain it was only targeting the minority of teachers preying on children.
"I think this message will be supported at large by the population," said Wells. ($1 = 471.5890 CFA Francs)
(Editing by Daniel Flynn and James Dalgleish)