People across Senegal were shocked by a photo posted online showing a young boy chained up by the head teacher at his Koranic school. Many children attend Koranic schools in this majority-Muslim country and the scandal has created a fierce divide, with supporters of the schools on one side and defenders of children’s rights on the other.
Locals first spotted the little boy in chains on November 22 in the streets of Ndiagne village, in the Louga region, 180 kilometres northeast of the capital, Dakar. When the photo was posted online, it caused an uproar.
A court in Senegal handed down a two-year suspended prison sentence to head teacher Cheikhouna Guèye, who was found guilty of chaining up the boy to keep him from running away. The child’s parents were also taken into police custody.
Powerful Muslim brotherhoods have far-reaching influence in Senegal and there are Koranic schools on every corner; their students are known as talibés.
Parents in rural areas often entrust their children to Koranic teachers, who are expected to provide a general education in addition to Koranic studies. But in reality, many of these children end up begging in the streets. Human rights organisations have frequently decried these abusive conditions, but often to no avail.
Post by Maggdann Moussoukoro Mbaye Doumbouya (translated from French): "Unfortunately, this is happening in some Koranic schools in rural areas in my home country of Senegal. This is currently making headlines. Gendarmes found these young children who had their feet chained up by the head teacher at their Koranic school. Some heartless Senegalese morons will go as far as defending such acts in the name of religion, under the pretext that homosexuality is even worse. "
"The situation for talibé children hasn’t really evolved”Our Observer Guejopaal Gnane, a professor of philosophy, spoke out against this practice in a 2013 episode of our show Observers Direct.
There are lots of Koranic schools in Senegal. But chaining up children for one reason or another isn’t common. It’s humiliating for Senegal and for Muslims in general to see these photos on social media. The situation for talibé children hasn’t evolved at all. And we have all been profoundly shocked by what we see on social media. There is no justification for this kind of punishment and there are no grounds for it in the Koran.
Koranic schools have become begging operations. You can’t chain up a child to keep him or her from running away. If you can’t keep a child safe, then you should return the child to its parents. The idea that suffering is key to the formation of a Muslim disciple is still a key component in these schools.
"We are asking for the authorities and the court to be strict in these matters”The scandal has divided Senegalese society between those who support the head teacher, and defenders of children’s rights.
Moustapha Lô, the president of the Federation of Koranic Schools, which includes more than 22,000 daaras (Koranic schools), has spoken out in defence of the head teacher. "He provides quality education in decent living conditions,” Lô told the news agency Agence France Presse.
Seydi Gassama, who represents rights group Amnesty International in Senegal, says the authorities need to send a strong message to those who harm children:
According to official figures, there are around 100,000 “talibés”, children and young adults studying at traditional Koranic schools, in Senegal. I think the numbers are actually much higher.
The children at these schools suffer extremely difficult living conditions. The dorms are often overcrowded. Sometimes, the children stay in abandoned buildings. These children have been abandoned by their parents. They have to beg to feed themselves and, for the past few years, they’ve also had to beg to raise money for the head teacher and his family to live off of.
But this is the first time we’ve seen images of children in chains. This seems to be a new, if not widely spread, tactic used in Koranic schools. Most Senegalese people have spoken out against this practice, which harkens back to the slave trade.
Amnesty International has been working to raise awareness about the harms caused by the corporal punishment and enforced begging that are widespread in Koranic schools. This campaign seems to have worked in the region of Casamance, where there is hardly any begging left. But in some regions, people remain resistant to change. We are calling on the authorities and the courts to be firm on this issue. We are currently waiting on a verdict that will be a strong signal to all marabouts who sometimes turn to these practices.
Article written by Hermann Boko (@HermannBoko).