By KRISTA LARSON
2014-03-19 11:42 PM
DAKAR, Senegal (AP) -- Senegal's government has failed to make good on promises to close dangerous and unsanitary boarding schools that house child beggars more than a year after a fire at one such shack killed eight young boys, an international human rights group said Wednesday.
Human Rights Watch also called on the government to move quickly to implement proposed legislation that could regulate conditions at such schools known as daaras. Tens of thousands of young boys in the West African country are supposed to be learning the holy Quran at the residential schools but instead spend up to eight hours a day begging in traffic, only to sleep in deplorable conditions at night.
The government has tried for years to ban the practice, but it remains deeply embedded in Senegal, where many poor parents view it as the only way to provide an education for their sons.
An untold number of young boys have been run down and killed while begging in traffic but the March 2013 fire tragedy in Dakar's Medina neighborhood appeared to be a game changer, if only because President Macky Sall subsequently declared that all substandard daaras would be closed.
However, the report released Wednesday by Human Rights Watch found that "while there has been some progress, Sall's promise remains largely unrealized one year later."
"After the Medina fire, authorities intervened to close only one school that threatened children's safety, although activists say that hundreds more are easily identifiable," the report found. "As a result of the lax enforcement of laws on the books, tens of thousands of boys across Senegal continue to be subjected to the practice of forced begging."
One of the instructors who ran the Quranic school that burned down has insisted it was a tragic accident, and has subsequently moved the surviving children to another residential school near the city of Touba.
Wednesday's report from Human Rights Watch comes nearly four years after the group's landmark study that documented widespread abuses against children forced to beg for Quranic schools in Senegal. A 2005 law already banned forced begging though "has rarely been enforced, even in egregious cases, due primarily to lack of political will."
Matt Wells, West Africa researcher for Human Rights Watch, said that a new draft law setting up oversight for Quranic schools is to be presented before Senegal's National Assembly in the coming months.
"The authorities should waste no time in passing the law and making sure it's applied," he said. "Each day of inaction means that children suffer in abusive environments."
Boys as young as 6 years old leave their families in the countryside to live at daaras in the Senegal capital. Supporters say the practice teaches young boys humility and prepares them for the hardships of life, though critics say it is tantamount to modern-day slavery.
Follow Krista Larson at www.twitter.com/klarsonafrica