Photo: Human Rights Watch.

Trafficking or just child-raising?

Cultural differences in the perception of begging children

A current controversy involves talibés from Guinea-Bissau begging in Senegalese cities and giving part of their money to the marabout. International organisations have called it trafficking and a clear abuse of child rights conventions.

In Guinea-Bissau, it is common for rural families to send their young boys to religious schools to receive training from Koranic teachers, so-called marabouts (holy men). The boys, called talibés (students), stay with a marabout until they have gained a certain level of knowledge about the Koran. This may take up to ten years or even more in some cases.

Hamadou Boiro

UNICEF in 2009 contracted NAI scholarship-holder Hamadou Boiro, together with a colleague, to investigate whether the system of talibés and marabouts is in fact child exploitation. After interviewing NGOs marabouts, parents, and government representatives, Boiro realised that different cultural understandings lead to different conclusions.

“In the West, children can play all day and then watch TV in the evenings. In Guinea-Bissau, however, things are different. Life in the countryside is hard and children often need to help their parents working in the fields”, Boiro remarks.

Therefore, most parents are in favour of the custom of sending children to a marabout, because they want to give their children an education, which in many cases is an opportunity they never had themselves. After talking to marabouts, Boiro understood they are not paid to educate the children. Their only income comes from the talibés’ begging. Travelling to Senegal, marabouts explain, is part of the training: according to Islam one sometimes has to travel far to find the truth and nobody can acquire knowledge without exertion.

According to Boiro, authorities and NGOs in Guinea-Bissau send out mixed messages. In conversations with international organisations they share the view that it is trafficking and child labour. However, they are well aware of how much support the old tradition has among the population and therefore express themselves more cautiously domestically.

“The tradition of sending boys to Koranic studies will not end soon. Nevertheless, of course, the arrangement can improve. It requires an open dialogue in a different tone of voice that does not use words such as ‘trafficking’ or arguing that parents are selling their children”, Boiro explains.

At his month-long stay at NAI, Boiro explored the library’s collection on marabouts and talibés. His further research will focus on current anti-trafficking measures, involving ban on begging and repatriation of children.

TEXT: Johan Sävström

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