SONS OF SAHEL

In memoria del massacro dei ragazzi di Soweto nel giugno 1976

Maria Stefania Cataleta | International Criminal Lawyer

The Day of the African Child has been celebrated this year on June 14. The date was established in honor of the student massacred in Soweto in 1976. Nevertheless, in many African countries, mainly in the region of Sahel, certain types of serious crimes against children have attained a gravity which can no longer be tolerated. This problem, which involves principally orphans, poor children and talibés (the students) from daaras (the Koranic schools), has been confirmed by several NGO reports, that testify to the international community’s concern regarding such a massive and far-reaching phenomenon involving generations of children, from the age of three and up.1

Research and enquiries have revealed many cases of violence against children including forced labour and military conscription. Human Rights Watch (HRW) declares that about 50,000 daaras’ students live in slavery in Senegal.2 In particular, children are submitted to the marabout (the teacher in the daaras) who, instead of carrying out his pedagogical duties, takes over and dominates the children’s lives. Sunnit and Sufi Islamic practice consider the marabout to be a ghost guide to whom the children must be submitted in order to reach God. However, instead of being introduced to Islam, children are sent away from their families for years and undergo a distorted education. The children are forced to beg or are sometimes enrolled in the militia or the official army.

In some regions, the progressive religious influence in the political and social life have brought about an “Islamisation” of the society. This process is confirmed by the presence of Islamic Fundamentalist Groups in sub-Saharan countries and by the recent eruption of the ISIS in the Middle East, that is recruiting children as suicide bombers in Mosul. These changes create an element of destabilization of the democratic order in countries where secularism is still much disputed. In a similar context it is easy for children to be indoctrinated and even enrolled as privileged recruits, mainly because they fight for free. Furthermore, they can be easily manipulated due to their malleability and their physical and mental fragility, which is why tens of thousands of children are enlisted in many African countries.

Since the crisis in northern Mali exploded in 2012, child enrolment has been under investigation by the Prosecutor for the ICC. Enquiries conducted by NGOs confirmed that only a small proportion of young soldiers are volunteers. Following the investigations in the region of Azawad, the area torn by conflict since 2012, the Prosecutor has confirmed the presence of child soldiers under the age of 15 within the Islamist terrorist troops, such as AQMI (Al-Quaida dans le Maghreb Islamique), a salafit military organization and the MUJAO (Mouvement pour l’unicité et le Jihad de l’Afrique occidentale), a dissident faction of the AQMI.3

UNICEF has affirmed that since the 6th of July 2012 at least 175 children have been enrolled in the army in Mali and directed towards the Azawad region. Some of these children come from the migratory waves around the Sahel region. Child enrolment involves a sequence of systematic practices of training for new recruits, who are submitted to a hard course of long and painful physical exercises, introduced to the use of weapons and have to undergo continuous and aggressive incitement and often forced to consume drugs.

Several African countries have ratified the Convention of the Rights of Children, adopted by the United Nations in New York on the 20th of November 1989 and the African Charter of the rights and well-being of children in 1990. Neither in time of war nor in that of peace can this protection be violated. Moreover, aside from the direct military and civil individual responsibilities, there lies a deeper and more universal responsibility for such violations, because there is a fundamental obligation to intervene and prevent them. Silence and inaction must be overcome and the duty to intervene and protect children must be met.


1 See the Caritas International Report, Des écoles sans formation. La vie des élèves des écoles coraniques, Fribourg, December 2010 and E. Pelizzari/O. Silla (dir.), Enfance et sacrifice au Sénégal, Mali, Gabon. Ecoles coraniques, pratiques d’initiation, abus et crimes rituels, L’Harmattan Italia, Torino, 2014.
2 HRW Report 2010, “Sur le dos des enfants”. Mendicité force et autres mauvais traitements à l’encontre des talibés au Sénégal.
3 CPI, Situation in Mali, Report under article 53-1, 16 January 2013

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