On March 10-12, Dakar was host to a historic conference on the theme of “Sub-regional Coordination and Harmonization with the Goal of Eradicating Forced Child Begging”. The conference was organized by the African Assembly for the Defense of Human Rights (RADDHO French acronym) and Anti-Slavery International (ASI), two important partners working closely with Tostan’s Child Protection Project. 65 participants representing governments, religious organizations, and civil society groups from five countries (The Gambia, Guinea-Bissau, Mali, Niger, and Senegal) attended the conference.

This conference, a first of its kind, was the result of a fruitful collaboration between RADDHO, ASI, and Tostan and came on the heels of a successful campaign by marabouts (Islamic religious leaders) participating in a Tostan-sponsored advocacy day held on December 2, 2013, to lobby national leaders to end forced child begging. This conference was attended by many of those same national leaders and gave recognition to the fact that forced child begging is not just a Senegalese issue. It reinforced that any solution will require the efforts of many nations and sectors of society.

Conference organizers brought together different stakeholders and perspectives to discuss the subject of child begging, with particular emphasis on religiously based child begging. Being a taboo subject in the country where it is practiced, the debates throughout the conference were spirited and at times contentious. Discussion on whether the origin of the problem is poverty or unscrupulous marabouts; the role and responsibility of parents in the situation; the effectiveness of government policy; and what Islam has to say about begging were all areas of passionate dialogue. 

However, this passion also fueled their drive to find a lasting solution to such a seemingly intractable problem. The participants were in agreement that this issue needs to be addressed and that society can do better when it comes to ensuring the rights of children. Most religious schools, called Daaras, are not subjected to any governmental, religious, or community controls, which often leads to low quality education, abuse, malnutrition, and even human trafficking.  A common theme during the conference was how this exploitation results in religious students, or talibés, living extremely precarious lives. Most participants recognized the need for state involvement in financing and regulating religious education, and also they revealed the disparity in national policies in regards to child begging. Though most countries have a national policy or are signatories to treaties banning the practice, implementation and regulation is weak or absent. 

Through working groups the participants were able to reflect on the practical concerns surrounding this issue and developed proposals to address the issue. Representatives from Tostan participated in the working group on innovative practices to counter child begging. Tostan collaborates with community leaders and marabouts to build awareness of human rights and to support their organized efforts to lead Daara modernization. This community-based approach to ending forced child begging was lauded as truly innovative.  Some participants complained that marabouts often stand in the way of meaningful reform as the rewards of exploitation are too great, but it is unlikely that any solution to this problem will be found without the input of marabouts.

It remains to be seen if there will be a second annual sub-regional meeting on child begging, but the need for continued advocacy and coordination is unquestionable. The participants at this conference will return to their respective countries more knowledgeable and determined than when they arrived, bolstered by this demonstration of regional solidarity.