Girls Not Brides
Millions of girls are being married off even before they complete school. They won't ever be able to live prosperous lives.
Scores of children are living in poverty and misery in Senegal. You can see them in every city centre, begging and stealing to survive. Some of them are even sent out by the teachers of their Koranic schools.
At Dakar's bus stations, it is easy to see what life is like for many Senegalese kids: in the early morning hours, hordes of children from the rural areas and suburbs crowd into and pile out of busses in the city centre. They engage in labour that exceeds their physical capabilities. Or they beg on the streets. The range of ages runs from tiny three-years-olds to children between the ages of ten and thirteen. These children are society's most unfortunate members: they are exposed to all sorts of maltreatment and exploitation.
From the bus stations is quite clear – there are far too many children living in inhumane and deplorable conditions. Children are the most vulnerable members of society. But we abandon them and let them fall into misery and poverty. And we do so consciously. So many minors are victimised and violated: children forced into labour, kids facing sexual exploitation or driven to a life on the streets, begging and stealing just to survive. This is harm that we as adults inflict on them.
Children's rights have been under discussion in my homeland for ten years now, but the situation hasn't improved. Our precious country was one of the last to ratify international treaties such as the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child or the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child. Accordingly, we should educate and protect our children in the most human manner. But we don't even have a common understanding of what childhood should be like. We should reflect: What are our cultural and religious visions about how to treat our children? And do we act accordingly? Let's turn to a real life story from the streets of Dakar.
From the bus stations it is quite clear – there are far too many children living in inhumane and deplorable conditions.
He walks by me in rags, in filthy clothes with little bare feet: young Moussa is so exhausted he can hardly keep his eyes open. With a small bowl in hand, he wanders the streets desperately searching for food.
Moussa is a talibé. Among the children begging in the streets, there are many talibés. The word "talib" in Arabic means "student" and it often refers to pupils of religious schools. I would define a talibé as a person of any confession, who openly shows his or her religious belonging.
I approach little Moussa to talk with him:
Moussa: "Sarakh nguir Yalla – A little hand-out for the grace of God, please."
Me: "I've already given the hand-out. But tell me, how are you?"
Moussa: "I'm ok."
Me: "What is your name?"
Me: "Where are you from originally?"
Moussa: "80 or 100 km from here."
Me: "And how old are you?"
Moussa: "Eeuum.... I don't know."
Me: "Where are your parents? Why are you not with them?"
Moussa: "They are in our village. They sent me here to study."
Looking at this hungry child, it is hard to believe that his parents sent him here. But the story of little Moussa is not exceptional. He's a student at from a daara, a Koranic school, Daaras offer free education to children from marginalised areas. Their parents send them to the schools partly out of religious duty, partly because they hope their children will receive a good education there. Sometimes poverty also drives parents to send a child away: a child in the daara means one fewer mouth to feed.
Asking for food is part of the daaras' educational activities. Their traditional goal is to educate intellectual leaders, and asking for food is intended to teach their students humility. But while some daaras still honour this tradition, many others have corrupted the practice. The teachers enrich themselves on the backs of their pupils. Not only do the children have very little to eat, they also receive no proper education.
It appears as if our educational system has forgotten all about these children. Public schools do not seem to fulfil parents' desires to send their children to schools that maintain our cultural identity and offer a classical as well as a religious education.
Is this quest for religious instruction really sufficient justification for accepting so much suffering by thousands of innocent children?
But is this quest for religious instruction really sufficient justification for accepting so much suffering by thousands of innocent children? I think not. There is no reason education – religious or not – should negatively affect the well-being of our children.
Schools should help children acquire the knowledge and skills that will allow them to be productive members of society and to live a self-determined life. This means children must be able to fully develop in a protective environment. This holds true for the daaras as well. There is nothing wrong with the decision to send children to a sacred community for instruction. But every educational institution must take care of its students and shield them from evil and suffering.
The law is very clear about what we should protect our children from: mendacity, from any person no matter their age, is formally forbidden by our constitution. Any form of violation or abuse of minors is punishable by up to ten years in prison, which is right and proper. It is up to us, to the government and society as a whole, to play our role well, so that our children feel secure and can unfold their full potential.
We inherited a colonial education system in Senegal. The time has come for an honest investigation of this system. We need to decide that we will not let any group of children down – whatever our aspirations may be. And we need effective reflection on today's daaras. Society should enter into dialogue with those affected and discuss educational standards. We need to avoid the anarchy of the malicious.
During my brief experience working for the rights of children, I met a great and well-known person who said:
"A child who has never felt the gentle caress of a hand on his head, to whom we have never shown affection, will not be able to give nearly as much back."
For the sake of our children: say yes to quality education!
For the sake of our children: Say yes to quality education that maintains our cultural identity and is open to the world at the same time – for continuing development!
 Name changed by the author due to privacy concerns.