Dressed in a suit, you would never guess that Aua Balde, a Tostan regional volunteer, had spent the past eight months living and working in the humid, rural region of Kolda, in southern Senegal. At the Novotel in downtown Dakar on Monday, June 28, this current Harvard Human Rights Henigson Fellow presented research on the subject of talibé in West Africa, an issue that recently has received much attention by international organizations, including Human Rights Watch.

The talibé phenomenon, according to Aua, is not limited to Senegal. It is trans-national in nature as around 40% of talibé in Senegal come from neighboring countries. Talibé, or Qu’aranic students, are sent by their parents, to daaras, or schools, in larger cities. There, talibé are to learn the Qur’an from religious teachers or marabouts. However, in most cases, marabouts do not have the means to support the students and the young boys are sent to the streets to beg. In doing this, the students are kept from a formal education. “They spend each day from 7am to 3pm begging,” explained Aua as she stood beside a poster board at the conference displaying the main points of her research and photos of young boys carrying oversized soup cans. “What time do they have to study?”

The conference, called “Promoting Resilience through Social Protection in Sub-Saharan Africa,” was sponsored by the European Report on Development and highlighted 14 young African researchers – including Aua, originally from Guinea-Bissau – who presented unique findings on an array of social protection issues. Aua’s specialty is child protection; with the completion of this paper, she will earn a post graduate degree in the subject from Coimbra University in Portugal. Previously, Aua earned a masters degree in international human rights law from Harvard Law School.

Aua’s experience in the Kolda region has also shed light on how the Tostan program, which provides human rights-based education in rural communities, is connected to child protection.

“The investment in the education of parents has a major impact on child protection because it changes the way in which parents perceive the rights of the children, which makes [parents] not only more aware but more willing to be engaged in making child protection a reality. I have realized, for example, that parents are more engaged in making sure their children go to school because Tostan made them realize not only the importance of education, but also that children are entitled to it.”

Aua will spend two more months in Kolda, working in Tostan’s regional office and completing her research on talibé.

“As a lawyer, I tend to think that [a] law is there to regulate our social issues including those of talibés,” she explained. “However, I also acknowledge that, being this is a social problem, we need more than [a] law to fix it.”

More information on the conference can be found here and a pdf version of her ongoing research can also be found online.

Story by Sydney Skov, Tostan Volunteer in Dakar, Senegal

Photo: Tostan volunteers attend Aua Balde’s presentation on the talibé phenomenon. From left: Caitlin Snyder, Josephine Ndao, Marisa Hesse, Zoe Williams (Tostan’s Volunteer Coordinator), Aua Balde, and Sydney Skov.