February 13, 2007—More than 500 Senegalese street children joined government officials, celebrities, religious leaders, civil society representatives, and development officials last October for the launch of the Street Children’s Campaign Partnership in Dakar. The event boasted more than 1,000 participants as street children performed songs, dances, and skits. Well-known Senegalese artists and entertainers delighted audiences with a free concert. The event marked the Partnership’s launch of activities aimed at reuniting hundreds of street children with their estranged families, or placing them in structures offering a minimum of protection and care.
The Partnership members include the Government of Senegal, UNICEF, UNESCO, the African Development Bank, the French Cooperation, the International Labor Organization, national and international celebrities, religious leaders and other members of civil society, NGOs, the media, and the private sector.
Number One Social Issue in Senegal
The Bank’s Country Office in Senegal played a key role in establishing the Partnership in Dakar, the country’s vibrant capital whose dynamic economy and booming construction of high-rises and hotels stand in stark contrast to the realities of the many homeless and vulnerable children that hustle and struggle to survive on the streets.
Concerned by the situation, Country Director Madani M. Tall, in coordination with government officials, the donor community, civil society, and other advocates for children set up a steering committee one year ago and tasked it with studying the issue of street children and proposing a response.
"This is the number one social issue in Senegal,” says Tall. “The World Bank can use its convening power to raise awareness and build active coalitions around it, and this is what we have done. It will take all of us to find solutions to this, one child at a time.”
The event also comes on the heels of the steering committee’s meeting with the Presidential Council on October 10, during which Senegal President Abdoulaye Wade urged that something concrete be done to take children off the streets. In his opening address at the launch, the Minister of Information, Bacar Dia, declared, “The government is determined to stop the begging and roaming of children in the streets and their exploitation and will enforce laws and regulations on the matter.”
Although Senegal’s economy grew at an average rate of 5.5 percent in 2005 and 4.6 percent from 2001–04, the growth has not been shared by all. The country still struggles with the consequences of the economic hardships of the 1990s and a 66 percent poverty rate.
Child Traffickers Targeted
Poor parents who cannot afford to care for their children often entrust them to religious leaders known as marabous to educate them and teach them the Koran.
Child traffickers posing as marabous will often kidnap the children from villages and take them to Dakar where they are forced to beg for handouts in the streets. Under threat of beatings, the children must give the money to their “masters.”
Leaders of Senegal’s religious communities attending the Partnership launch denounced this practice, lamenting that the country’s noble tradition of teaching young boys the Koran has been so distorted and exploited.
Despite an impressive body of research on street children prepared with the support of NGOs, UN agencies, and the World Bank, past efforts have been unable to put an end to this trend.
For its part, the Government has enacted laws to protect families and children but they are not enforced. Meanwhile, the general public has come to accept the sight of boys as young as 4 years old begging on city streets. Many unwittingly encourage the situation by giving the children money, food or other small gifts. However, the practice of begging is in itself dangerous as many children disrupt traffic and get into accidents.
Over the next 18 months, the Partnership will implement a pilot project in Kolda, Tamba and Matam––the three main cities from which the majority of street children originate––to bring some 500 children back home or place those who cannot go home in appropriate structures, and to rehabilitate a dozen centers for children.
The Partnership is also launching a major communication campaign to raise awareness about its efforts among the general public, including by working with children to produce songs, poems, and artwork for public service announcements as well as using recreational activities to reach vulnerable children to participate in the pilot program.