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Day Of The African Child Today

UN Humanitarian Affairs (Dr. Claudia R. Wintoch)

16 June 2006




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Today is the Day of the African Child. For that reason the UN has sent out several informative articles on children in West Africa, the highlights of which I'm sending on to you in this email. Even if some examples are not taken from Mali, they are from neighboring countries where the situation is very similar, and therefore reflects the situation in Mali well.

Remember that among our own three former street children, many of the cited issues and problems and pasts are present - beatings, abuse, begging, etc. Therefore this email will give you new insight into the battles at hand and ahead of us in Mali.

The task is huge, but we can touch one child at the time. And JESUS is the only one who can give them hope and a future.

It's a privilege to be his extended hand. If this email touches you, and you feel God stirring you to make a difference, consider helping us in prayer, financially (construction, sponsorships), but best of all: COME HELP US FOR A SEASON, whether weeks or months or longer, and allow Him to change lives through YOU.

All HIS,



Friday 16th June is the Day of the African Child. It marks the 1976 shooting of school children protesting apartheid in the South African township of Soweto. Three decades on, that anniversary is being used to draw attention to the continued violence suffered by children in Africa.

Q: Why is violence in schools here different to other regions of the world?

A: In West Africa we are not talking about bullying or violence between children; the main concern is the issue of sexual exploitation of girls in schools by their teachers. Our studies have also shown that in some countries teachers use rape as a way of disciplining girls. We have found examples of this in Ghana, but it likely affects a lot of countries.

There is the problem of abuse of authority by headmasters and teachers - few countries in the region have developed monitoring mechanisms so parents and children have no way to complain and get redress. There is no enforcement of law. Often teachers are just moved on if there is a complaint, just transferring the problem somewhere else, not solving it. We need to make sure that schools are a safe place for children, not a place of abuse.

The situation of children in some Koranic schools is also of concern. Not all Koranic schools, but in some instances children are being recruited not to learn the Koran but to be exploited as street beggars. Senegal is the main example, but not the only one, where we can see there has been a distortion of an existing tradition.

This needs to be resolved by Koranic scholars who must work out minimum standards and a minimum curriculum for Koranic schools, including limits on time spent begging. Traditionally, children would beg a few hours on a Friday to learn humility but now they are begging eight hours a day seven days a week and getting beaten if they don't bring back enough money. Children are being brought to Senegal from Guinea Bissau, Mauritania and other West African countries to beg on the streets and be exploited, linking in with the problem of child trafficking.

Q: You mentioned harmful traditional practices, among those would you include the traditional practice of adoption, the gifting of a child to a better off relative or family friend?

A: Yes, that is a clear illustration of what is happening in our region and the complexity of child protection issues in West Africa. More than 50 percent of children are not with their biological parents but gifted to another family to take care of them - this was a traditional mechanism of solidarity which had a strong value and often provided opportunities for poor children in return for their domestic work. But that has changed and a mechanism for solidarity and support is in some instances being used to economically exploit children and once again is closely linked to the problem of child trafficking.

Q: UNICEF has been operating in the region throughout the last 25 years - why in that time have children's lives got more difficult?

A: I think it is because they are African kids and you can see what is happening to Africa, where poverty is on the rise. It's clear that poverty has a huge impact on the situation of families. The situation is not about poverty but growing poverty and in order to survive people have to develop new survival strategies and very often these strategies make the children part of the economic network and often their rights as workers are not respected. The weakest part of the chain is exploited and that is the children.

Traditional Adoption Can Be "Living Hell"

"I was four when I was left in the care of my uncle, who was childless. While I was small everything was fine, but when I turned nine my living hell began. I was no longer a child of the house, I was a slave of the house," said Souleymane.

Now 16 and dressed in rags, the sad-looking boy whose right hand is missing three fingers breaks into tears on recalling those years. "One day when I was hungry I took a bit of food from the pot. My uncle's wife crushed my fingers with a hammer."

Like more and more children across Africa today, Souleymane fell foul of an ancestral custom now going wrong - informal or "traditional" adoption or entrustment. Under the once socially useful system, children would be sent away from home to live with relatives or friends who took on responsibility for the child's education.

Sent off from his remote village in Cameroon to his uncle's family in the northern town of Garoua, in the expectation he would receive an education from one of its many schools, Souleymane wound up being forced to do domestic work, and finally ran away.

"My uncle's wife never lifted a finger. I cooked, cleaned, did all the house work," he said. "All I ever got in return were beatings."

So for the past four years he has lived on the street. "I won't ever go back," he said.


In the old days, being asked to bring up someone else's child was an honour. A child might be sent away too as a "gift" to infertile relatives, or to be brought up by relatives if their mother died.

"It would have been unimaginable for a family to allow children it had been entrusted with to be in rags and bare feet. This would have been a disgrace," said Youssouf Tata Cisse, a retired Malian researcher.

But as poverty gnaws African society, children nowadays are being sent away because parents simply cannot afford to bring them up, said El Kane Mooh, West Africa advisor for Save the Children, Sweden, "They no longer have the means."

Because of impoverishment and migration, traditional family ties are breaking down and stories like Souleymane's are becoming common, experts say.

"In this region, there is more and more abject poverty. The African family, in the sense that we know it, doesn't exist any more. The fantasy of African solidarity doesn't exist any more," said Jean-Claude Legrand, a senior regional official with the UN children's agency UNICEF. "The family is changing, there is a new dynamic, and protecting children is no longer the priority."


Many girls report not only exploitation but sexual assault by their new parents and families.

Sylvie, a 28-year-old from Cameroon, recounts her memories of rape and abuse at the hands of relatives supposed to provide her with affection and education.

"My father placed me in the care of my older sister when I was only two because she was not having children. But he brought me back home when I was 16 or 17 because all was not well: I was badly mistreated. My sister's co-wife and her children, who were older than me, used to beat me up severely. As soon as my sister left for work I'd be at their mercy.

"Before going to school I had to clean up the whole house. When I'd come home I had to wait until everyone else had finished eating before I could have supper. If there was nothing left I'd go to bed on an empty stomach or go to see if the neighbours had any leftovers.

"My sister's husband used to beat her, so she left, but she couldn't take me with her. She left me alone there for a month which is when they broke my forefinger. Another time they hit me on the head with a hammer. I never said anything to my brother-in-law because I was afraid he'd hit me more."

The sore festered because nobody gave me medicine. When my sister returned there was pus and maggots in the wound. She asked me what had happened but I told her I'd fallen down on the stairs. I was afraid of a new beating if I told the truth. I only told my sister two years ago what had really happened. She cried because she knew I had been brutalised, but not to that extent.

"When I was eight years old, my brother-in-law's little brother, who was 18, used to wash us. One day he raped me. I didn't want to tell anyone but my sister noticed that I couldn't walk. After that, she asked for a divorce because she believed her husband was an accomplice to the fact, but he refused. It isn't easy to divorce and my parents wouldn't have been able to pay back the dowry.

"I suffered a lot and still do. My head hurts when I remember all this. I cannot braid my hair properly and am still disgusted by sexual relations.

"But I have two children now and live with their father. At first it wasn't easy because he didn't understand what was blocking me. But we talked about it and he understood that he must be patient and not upset me. When I see those who hurt me at family reunions my scars start to hurt again."

Amelie, who slipped away from an abusive family ten years ago and now lives in Paris, was beaten when she tried to speak out. "The day that I said that one of my uncles had touched me, he beat me and whipped me until I bled. It was true, but after that I kept silent. I could not talk about these things," she said.

"Parents in towns don't have the means to invest in a child, especially one which isn't their own, when they cannot even send their own children to school," he said.

Working On The Street

In most countries children aged 10 would be safely at school, not selling bags of water or washing cars on the street. But in West Africa, which accounts for half of the world's 26 poorest countries, the streets are full of working children.

"I used to be in the second year of primary school," said Alpha Ibrahima, who is only nine. "But because my parents are very poor I had to give up school to sell plastic bags of mineral water in the bus stations in Conakry."

But children such as Ibrahima cannot even go to school. "My parents say I'm the only one capable of earning enough money for everyone," he says as he offers travellers a bag of water.

Tiny Alhassane, whose T-shirt once was white, spends each and every day on the streets of the Guinean capital, a city where children who do go to school gather at the airport at nights to finish their homework. It is one of the few places in Conakry to have a steady supply of electricity.

"I spend all my time here, in the city centre," he told IRIN, "selling vegetables during the day and at night I wash cars for a few coins. When my eyelids start to close I go home where my family's waiting for me and for the next day's spending money."

Aboubacar is one of several small boys who work as criers in the crowded streets of the poor suburb of Bambeto, finding customers for the broken-down taxis of Conakry. "I've been doing this for seven months," he said. "My parents live far away in the village and I came to live at my uncle's place in Conakry so I could go to school.

"At the beginning my relatives were very nice, but over the months our relations have soured. Now they make me pay half of the monthly water bill so I've had to stop school to pay for it."

Working nearby selling iced water, small Mariama too said she was being exploited by an aunt. "If I don't go home each night with at least 7,000 Guinea francs she beats me up."

Living On The Street

No one had seen Ale (now 15) for a year and a half, and there had been not a single word on his whereabouts until his return the previous day in the company of three young men from a group that runs a shelter for street children, called Village Pilote. Its aim is to return children to their families and home environment.

"We never force anyone to return home," said Sherif Makhfou Ndiaye. "But when they're ready we do everything we can to help.

"Sometimes it's complicated with the families, however," he added. "Some of them don't care, others don't trust us and think we want something from them. So I tell them we're only acting in the interest of the child, and that that is why we are bringing him home."


It was because of another older brother that Ale left in the first place. When his father died, and with his mother gone to live in St-Louis, he was left in the village to work with his brother in the rice-fields.

"Whenever he came home and saw me and my friends and brothers playing instead of working in the fields, he would beat us," Ale said. The boy ran away from the village three times to his mother's small house in town, but each time she brought him back.

So in 2004 he fled as far as he could go, joining the tens of millions of other children living on streets worldwide. The UN children's agency UNICEF said in a 2006 report that it was impossible to determine exactly how many minors were living alone across the globe.

Like the others Ale learned quickly how to be mobile. After slamming the door on his home he traded in his watch against a ride on one of the battered blue-and-yellow mini-buses, or "cars rapides", that crisscross Senegal.

He got off 169 km down the road in the central town of Touba, where he struck up a friendship with a gang of four street kids on his first night out looking for a place to sleep. The boys taught him how to beg and how to steal chickens they would then resell. The group stuck together for three months.

Then, three of them took off on a 190-km trip to the shantytown suburb of Pikine outside the capital, Dakar, where they lived like thousands of others - begging for lumps of sugar, rice, peanuts and cakes that they ate or tried to resell. At nights they slept under parked trucks.

Ale and his mates used to resell their daily takings in a pigsty by a train-line that is home to several families from Guinea-Bissau, forced to sleep and live in mud and garbage alongside their pigs.


It was after reaching Pikine that Ale went to live in the refuge - in February 2005. He stayed there for more than a year, with a dozen other 8 to 15 year-olds, most of them from the country and most having fled Koranic schools where they had been placed by their parents.

He saw only one of his old street-friends again, during a football match for street kids organised by the shelter, and tried to convince him to come to live in the refuge too. "But he was hanging out at the time with kids who sniffed solvent and who had a bad influence on him. I never saw him again."

Ale said he went to live in the refuge after being saved from a stabbing on the street by one of the youth workers in the shelter. "I had a fight with a kid who hit me in the mouth. He ran off to get a knife and Mamadou (the youth worker) turned up and took me to the shelter. The kid followed us waving the knife but Mamadou chased him away and I never left the shelter again."

Violence is common among children fending for a living in the streets, as is sexual abuse and drug involvement. But Ale said: "I have never been a victim of a sexual attack though I met kids who had." According to Sherif from the shelter, Ale must have been one of only a handful there to have escaped sexual abuse.

During his time at the shelter, Ale learnt how to read and write and trained as a baker, which is what he hopes to do in St-Louis, unless he takes to sculpture like one of his brothers.

Begging For Muslim Teachers

When Ibrahima Sow turned five, he was sent away to a religious school to learn about Islam and memorise the Koran. Forced to beg to pay his teachers and to feed himself, and beaten whenever he returned empty-handed, he finally ran away from the school.

Small boys begging as "talibes", or disciples of a marabout teacher, are a common sight at street corners across Senegal. The United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) estimated in 2004 that there were as many as 100,000 child beggars in the country - about one percent of the population - and that talibe children were the vast majority.

Today, Ibrahima Sow is 16 years old. The following is the story of much of his childhood as he recounted it to IRIN:

"I stayed a long time at the school. I don't know exactly how long, but I'm sure I was there for more than three years.

At the school I used to get up at 6 a.m. and go out to beg for my breakfast as there was no food there. At 9 o'clock I'd return to learn the Koran until 1 p.m., when I'd go back out to beg for my midday meal. I'd return to the school at 3 p.m. and stay in class until 5.

It was at 5 p.m. everyday that I had to turn over all the cash begged that day. There was no amount set but when we came back empty-handed we were beaten. They only let us buy food if we brought back a lot of money. Otherwise we didn't eat.

The toughest times were when the marabout teacher was away, because then the oldest talibes were left in charge. There were only five or six of them but they didn't treat us well. That's why I ran away from the school.

After running off I lived on the streets for two or three months. Sleeping rough wasn't easy but I was never scared. I used to sleep under trucks or buses at bus stations. I'd chase away anyone who was already there to get some space.

I used to beg and steal and I was never caught, except for once. I was in Rufisque, outside Dakar. Me and a friend stole a cellphone and the owner saw us. He caught us and heated up a fork and a knife and then applied them to our skin. I still have burn marks on the stomach, chest, left arm and bottom.

One day I sniffed paint solvent with a gang of friends. We put the stuff on a rag and mixed it with fresh mint to hide the smell. It had no effect on me so I threw away the rag and never tried again.

I used to make love to younger boys but nobody ever did it to me. I had seen Thierno, a friend of mine who's leader of a gang of street kids, do it. So I tried. But I dropped all that when I came to live in the shelter in Pikine run by Village Pilote [an NGO that works with street children in the suburbs of the capital Dakar].

After a few months at the refuge I ran away one day because I didn't want to go to reading and writing class. One of the workers, David, tried to force me. When I refused, he pulled me by the arm to talk to me but I threw away my books and paper and fled. I lived on the street for 10 days until I bumped into a talibe who had been entrusted to my marabout teacher. He forced me to go back to the Koranic school in where my teacher gave me some money to go home.

I finally made it to my village, Mban, three months ago. Now I work as a shepherd with my cousin.

I'd like to go back to the city, not to live on the street but to look for work, earn some money, buy sheep and bring them back to the village and raise them. But I have no choice but to stay here. My father has died and I must now help my mother who still has to bring up my two little sisters and my little brother. As the oldest I'm now in charge of the whole family and I must be responsible."

Tel:+221 867.27.30
Email: IRINWA@IRINnews.org

[This item comes to you via IRIN, a UN humanitarian news and information service, but may not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations or its agencies. IRIN is a project of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.]

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