Local leaders in Guinea-Bissau’s northeastern Gabu Region have called for better protection of Koranic schoolchildren to curb exploitation at home and halt their transfer to neighbouring Senegal where they usually end up leading miserable lives.
At a conference in Gabu on 15-16 May on ways of easing the mistreatment of these children (talibés), government officials and religious and traditional leaders said child exploitation was “alarming” in Guinea-Bissau. Gabu traditional chief Said Umaro Embalo said many Koranic school teachers or `marabouts’ were unable to take proper care of the children in their schools.
“The biggest problems are providing food, clothes, health care and even housing. The children sleep on the floor or in the streets. In their families they don’t face the problems they face in the Koranic schools,” he said, noting that marabouts have 50-100 children in their schools.
Religious study is customary in many West African Muslim societies. In the past, Koranic schools were supported by communities, but over time have become degraded. Rights groups and NGOs have denounced mistreatment and exploitation of the talibés.
The Gabu conference agreed that the mistreatment of children in Koranic schools had no foundation in the teachings of Islam, that Guinean-Bissau children could receive religious instruction locally, and that there was a need to invest in quality child-friendly Koranic schools.
The leaders also called for the regulation of Koranic schools, the training of marabouts and public school teachers, the promotion of child rights, the enforcement of child trafficking laws, as well as closer cooperation with the government to provide better access to education.
The Gabu and (neighbouring) Bafata regions provide the majority of Guinea-Bissau’s children sent to Senegalese Koranic schools, where they are forced to beg in the streets for long hours, live in difficult conditions and are regularly beaten by their marabouts if they fail to bring back a certain amount of money and food.
“The context of weak state institutions characterized by extremely low investment in the public sector provides the conditions for all sorts of illegal and detrimental acts against children. You have all sorts of criminals and people taking advantage of this context,” Abubacar Sultan, the UNICEF representative in Guinea-Bissau, told IRIN.
Weak law enforcement also exposes parents from poor communities to exploitation, Sultan explained.
“They cannot afford the formal education… but they feel that they have to provide some sort of education for their children. That is where the predators come in and play with that situation and encourage families in the name of religious obligation to provide [the children] with religious education, [but then] subject them to exploitation.”
Many Gabu families highly regard Senegalese marabouts and prefer to send their children across the border. Some Guinean-Bissau marabouts established in Senegal also return home to convince parents to hand them their children. Collusion between parents and marabouts is said to also spur the cross-border move. However, some parents, ignorant of the mistreatment at the Koranic schools, send their children in good faith.
Gabu chief Embalo decried the lack of state backing for Koranic schools in Guinea-Bissau. “It is because the government does not support the Koranic schools like they do public schools. Otherwise no child would be sent to Senegal.”
However, public schools are also facing a crisis of their own, with severe disruptions due to recurrent teacher strikes over missing salary payments, some dating back to 2003. The country has also been rocked by political upheaval, including a 2012 coup d’état.
Widespread poverty, resistance by some local imams and difficulties faced by repatriated children in resuming life back at home are hampering efforts to ease the situation for talibés, said Joanita Teixeira Sitafa Baldé, the Gabu Region coordinator of local NGO AMIC (Friends of the Children).
“Many of the children [sent to Senegal] are from Gabu and Bafata. There are some harsh economic realities among these communities where families have 5-6 children. So sometimes it is a matter of reducing the number of children [by sending them to Koranic schools],” Baldé explained.
Access to education is low in Guinea-Bissau, with more than 45 percent of school-age children locked out due to insufficiently qualified staff and infrastructure, says the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF). Families here depend on cashew nut and small-scale agriculture for sustenance and nearly 70 percent of Guinean-Bissau’s 1.6 million people live in poverty, according to the World Bank.
“This is the region with the worst child indicators in the country, whether you are talking about child survival, maternal mortality, malnutrition,” said Sultan.
AMIC has helped repatriate, in collaboration with Senegalese NGOs, some 600 Guinea-Bissau talibés since 2006. It is estimated that there are at least 50,000 talibé children in Senegalese Koranic schools. Guinea-Bissau children make up 30 percent of that figure, said Sultan.