Photo by Sam Phelps
Africa / Senegal

Modern Slavery in Senegal

Western media often cites Senegal as a beacon of democratic hope and stability in West Africa amidst a slew of violence-ridden, deeply impoverished neighbors. Senegal boasts one of the highest GDP’s in the region with a steady growth rate, more than a decade of peaceful turnovers of power, and a balanced, moderate Muslim society on a continent where faiths of all sorts are frequently used as excuses for violence.

However, despite Senegal’s economic and political promise, a recent report from the Human Rights Watch revealed a blemish on Senegal’s development record: the continued prevalence of forced child begging in Quranic schools in and around Dakar. This domestic problem exemplifies a larger issue pertaining to regional modern slavery. As Senegal shows, individual economic and democratic success cannot immunize a nation against the pervasive and under-addressed problem of slavery – a compelling warning for the West.

The 40 page Human Rights Watch document evaluated the progress (and lack thereof) in persecuting the schools and teachers guilty of forced child begging, a criminal offense under Senegal’s human trafficking laws, and in regulating the Quranic schools that often serve as a front for this modern child slavery. Teachers lie to poor families that they will educate their children in the teachings of the Quran and instead force them to beg on the streets. The teachers give children quotas of donations to fill on threat of brutal physical abuse. The schools have no academic curriculum, and actually contribute to the dearth of education among populations of impoverished young people. Furthermore, religious leaders have repeatedly condemned the schools as illegitimate.

Despite clear evidence against the Quaranic schools, Senegal’s current human trafficking laws, which could be used to crackdown on this form of slavery, are going unused. Since a horrific fire in one of these schools killed eight boys last year, legislatures have been developing laws to regulate these schools. Yet only one school has been prosecuted since the tragedy, as law enforcement continues to turn a blind eye to child slavery, despite the fact that Senegal is better equipped politically and financially to address the problem than any of its neighbors.

Disturbingly, slavery is endemic to much of West Africa. Mauritania, Senegal’s direct neighbor, ranks number one in prevalence of slavery among the population as a whole according to the Global Slavery Index and has a system of hereditary slavery. Also included on the top-ten list for prevalence of slavery are Benin, Cote D’Ivoire, and Gambia – all West African countries. One of the most common forms slavery involves the kidnapping or misleading of children by promising jobs in order to take them to plantations as labor. Slavery in West Africa targets the society’s most marginalized people, specifically the poor and children, so politicians have little incentive to address the problem.

The Global Slavery Index ranks Senegal number eleven, just escaping the top-ten.

Senegal illustrates that democratic and economic advantage do not necessarily remove a country from the specter of human rights violations. Analogously, despite their own economic advantage paired with geographic distance, Western countries share guilt in the problem of modern slavery. Slavery persists in industries around the world (especially agriculture) at the knowledge of profiting Western corporations. Consumers, either unknowing or apathetic, repeatedly cite the institutionalization and inevitably of “bad labor practices” as a reason to ignore them. Globalized markets and Western hegemony directly implicate corporation and consumers in developed countries.

Only a few miles off the coast of Dakar sits La Gorée, an island where centuries ago slaves were sold into the Atlantic slave trade. Despite this monument, now a World Heritage Site and a necessary reminder of the horror of slavery, the Senegalese government, the West, and the world at large continuously turn a blind eye to modern slavery. Forced child begging is only one example among many. As Senegal shows us, slavery threatens the human rights of all countries, even those with high economic and political achievement.