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At a glance: Guinea-Bissau

Under the façade of religious study, children fall victim to trafficking

© UNICEF Guinea-Bissau/2007/ Correia
Demba Baldé, 12, a child talibé who ran away from his Koranic master in Senegal, is now reunited with his family in Guinea-Bissau.

By Yolanda Nunes Correia

GABU, Guinea-Bissau, 9 July 2007 – Fande Djaló was sent to Senegal as a child ‘talibé’, or student of Islam, when he was only six years old. In Guinea-Bissau, where almost half of the population is Muslim, it is becoming a tradition for children – mostly boys from 5 to 15 years of age – to study abroad under a Koranic master.

But Fande returned six years later in dire health and infected with parasites. He died soon after at the age of 12.

“Fande stayed with me for 11 days, but it was too late,” lamented Joanita Teixeira, head of a AMIC, a non-governmental organization based here in Gabu. “He told me that he was fed by people who felt sorry for him on the streets. Otherwise, he had to feed himself in the garbage.”

Ms. Teixeira said she had seen many child talibés come back very ill, having lost all contact with their families.

‘A distortion of Islamic tradition’

After being lured by intermediaries with the promise of becoming talibés, said Mrs. Teixeira, children are sent out to the streets to beg, and each child has to return with a fixed amount of money, rice, sugar and tea every day. When they don't reach the target, they are often beaten, she explained.

Those who can’t stand the abuse often escape and sleep in the streets, where they risk abuse by older youths and adults. Others attempt to walk all the way back to Guinea-Bissau. Unfortunately, not all of them survive; some children reportedly have died from fatigue and starvation on the way.

Many families are unaware of the deception and fall victim to illegitimate offers. “It is hard to change the mentality of people,” said Mrs. Teixeira. “Child talibé has long been the tradition of Islam. Parents are proud to send their children to study abroad.

“It is a distortion of Islamic tradition,” she said. “The religion is against any violation of children’s rights.”

Scars of abuse remain

One former talibé, Demba Baldé, 12, said he had kept his loved ones alive only in his memories.

“I used to remember my mother and feel sad,” Demba said. “I am sure my father was convinced that he was doing the best for me. He advised me to be a good boy, to study diligently and to behave well. But after four years of sacrifice I couldn’t stand it any longer, so I run away.”

With AMIC’s help, Demba was reunited with his family, but his many scars are a constant reminder of the suffering he endured.

© UNICEF Guinea-Bissau/2007/ Correia
At the transit centre run by AMIC, a national NGO in Gabu, Guinea-Bissau, two former child talibés chat with a staff member.

Collaborative efforts against trafficking

A UNICEF-supported study of child trafficking under the pretence of Koranic study was completed this year. The Italian National Committee for UNICEF has joined forces with UNICEF Guinea-Bissau to prevent such exploitation and protect child talibés.

“Since November 2005, we have officially received more than 120 children in our transit centre with the support of many international and national partners from Senegal,” said Mrs. Teixeira. “Normally each child stays with us for a week before returning home, but sometimes they stay longer because it takes time for their parents to pick them up.

“Child talibés that return have mixed feelings,” she added. “They feel relieved for coming home, but they also feel anxious to see their family because they don’t know whether they are welcomed.”

Education and advocacy

In the past, some parents have sent their children back to Senegal after they came home. To help prevent such outcomes, local governments, courts and the police are now involved in educating and advocating parents and caregivers of potential victims of abuse.

In addition, training sessions on the prevention of child trafficking are being conducted for the police, and more control is being put in place at the borders. But Ms. Teixeira said more needs to be done.

“We need to provide more psychosocial support to victims of trafficking, and we need put more efforts in advocacy,” she said. “The fight for children’s rights is not a responsibility of one single person. We should all work together for the same purpose.”



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