Sunday, April 27, 2014

Kickstarting Change for Child Rights

Whether change comes with literal kick (think soccer) or metaphorical kick (think: bugging people until they pay attention), momentum is important. We have to keep things rolling. If we let the ball go, gravity will inevitably pull it to a stop.

This is how we need to think about helping talibé, the Koranic "students" often forced to beg in the streets, and pushing modernization of their daaras (Koranic schools) in Senegal. We can’t slow down. Right now talibé and the exploitation they've faced by their marabouts (teachers) are hot topics in the media. But the minute media and public attention die down and these kids fall out of the spotlight, the minute we let things slide back into their normal routine as we wait for change to trickle from the top down – that’s when progress stagnates.

The tradition of daara education in Senegal is deeply embedded, with strong religious and cultural roots. Parents are used to sending their kids away to live with and study under a marabout, who is automatically respected for his status as a religious leader. They are used to assuming the marabout will take care of the kids, with no need for oversight. Many people don’t want things to change, or can’t imagine how the system could run any other way. It’s difficult and sometimes intimidating to broach this subject with Senegalese people of this mindset. But the more we talk about change, the more people accept that it is happening.

Every year since the first Human Rights Watch report on the abuses faced by talibé in Senegal came out in 2010 (the first kick), things have started moving, even if slowly. Organizations and NGOs have amped up the programs they offer for talibé. Plan International and Pour Une Enfance offer the boys classes in everything from French to math and computer use; Taliberté and other groups maintain talibé youth centers and safe houses.

Activists like Issa Kouyate in St. Louis and others in Dakar have continued their work conducting night watches, rehabilitating runaway talibé, and supporting these at-risk youth. Coverage of their efforts increased with the 2012 documentary film, “Talibé: The Least Favored Children of Senegal” (second kick). In 2013, the horrible fire that killed 8 talibé trapped in their daara and the subsequent media attention and lobbying of national leaders kept the issue on the forefront (third kick), resulting in promises by President Macky Sall to end the practice of forced begging.

A national child protection strategy then passed in December 2013, and a law was drafted that would regulate daaras and shut down the ones forcing talibé to beg. HRW just published a second report in March 2014, urging Senegal to make the draft law a reality and enforce existing legislation that protects these children (fourth kick).

Recently, leading up to the International Day for Street Children on April 12, Peace Corps Volunteers and local partners organized the 4th Annual Talibé Soccer Tournament in St. Louis. Putting together such a big event was not a piece of cake, but it managed to bring together both talibé and non-talibé kids, mixing them in organized teams, to emphasize to the public that talibé deserve the same treatment and opportunities as anyone else. With every kick, they proved that to the audience. They even made the local news.

Photo by Hattie Hill (St. Louis Talibé Soccer Tournament 2014)

Momentum rolling.

In a few months, another documentary on talibé, “Raŋ Raŋ” by PCV Andrew Oberstadt, will be released. Still moving.

But then what?

All I ask is that we don’t let things unintentionally skid to a stop. That we don’t let anyone forget.

If you’re based in Senegal, here are some ways you can help:

  • Organize events and activities for talibé to keep them in the spotlight (talibé days, sports tournaments, etc.)
  • Get the community involved (conferences, events, medical support for talibé)
  • Start up conversations with Senegalese locals 

If you’re based in Senegal or anywhere else in the world, here are other ways to help:

  • Provide an audience for the media content on talibé (reading and linking to the articles, watching the videos)
  • Write about the issue

In my site of Kolda, a regional capital in southern Senegal, I’m attempting to organize a conference on daara modernization in partnership with several Koranic teachers (marabouts) and other leaders. We plan to invite all the local marabouts, which is in the range of 30-40 in the city of Kolda alone.

Even as global attention begins to fade after the International Day for Street Children, let’s not let these kids be swept to the side of the streets again, invisible in plain sight. Keep the movement going!

This article was originally posted on the Peace Corps SeneGAD blog at