DAKAR, Senegal – Senegal's government says it is stepping up its campaign against begging in the streets of the West African nation, where tens of thousands of children wander barefoot and swarm cars for change.
Begging has been officially banned since 2005, but the law has proved difficult to enforce.
A report by an international human rights organization earlier this year described how many children attending traditional Quranic schools — some as young as 4 — are forced to beg for money and are brutally beaten if they don't bring back enough.
"When you don't return with 250 West African francs (about 50 U.S. cents), you can suffer all sorts of reprimands," said Abdourahmane Ka, a 12-year-old who lives in a suburb of the capital.
Prime Minister Souleymane Ndene Ndiaye said late Tuesday that those begging for money will be given a place to stay if they leave the streets of Dakar and other large cities to receive help from charities.
"The government is initiating a more effective fight against begging, which is prohibited by law," he announced.
Powerful religious leaders in Senegal known as "marabouts" hold enormous political influence in this mostly Muslim nation. Parents often send their children to traditional schools run by marabouts, both because they hope their children will receive a religious education and because they are free.
But some marabouts have turned the schools into an exploitative, unregulated private industry, banking tens of thousands of dollars in annual profits by forcing droves of children into the streets to beg for change, according to New York-based Human Rights Watch.
While children beg on Dakar's streets, adults in dire poverty can also be seen asking for handouts including women carrying their babies on their backs at traffic lights.
"If we beg in the streets of Dakar, it is because we are poor and cannot count on anyone to help us," said Khoudia Sene, a 43-year-old mother of two. "I have been divorced four years, and my husband chased me out of the house ... If you don't want to steal or prostitute yourself, you have to beg."