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By Zohra Bensemra and Juliette Jabkhiro
SAINT-LOUIS, Senegal, Feb 22 (Reuters) - An eight-year-old boy fled his Koranic school in Saint-Louis, Senegal this month after he said a teacher threatened to beat him for not earning enough money begging on the street.
Hours later, alone in the corner of a low-lit bus station, he was raped by a teenager.
The child, whose name is not disclosed for privacy reasons, was rescued mid-assault by a local non-profit called Maison de la Gare that patrols Saint-Louis at night battling what has become a deep-rooted problem in Senegalese cities: thousands of young boys sent to religious schools end up begging on the streets, or worse.
"These things are still shocking, even when it is the tenth or fifteenth time you see them," said Maison de la Gare's founder, Issa Kouyate, referring to the boy's case.
A Reuters witness also saw the rape before it was stopped.
Teachers from the school the boy fled declined repeated requests for comment. His parents were not reachable.
Kouyate said that he was making inquiries about the background of the teenager who committed the rape, and will then report him to the police.
On Thursday, Saint-Louis police said in response to a phone call from Reuters seeking comment that the appropriate officer for such a case was not available to speak. On Friday, Reuters calls to the police station went unanswered.
Families across Senegal have long enrolled their children in schools called daaras to learn Islamic scripture and build character. Historically, part of that teaching included begging for food to instill humility.
Many daaras are free from problems of abuse. Success in a daara and strong knowledge of the Koran can lead to a prestigious position as an Imam or a Koranic teacher, known as a marabout. Many parents, often far away back home, are unaware of the risks some children face in the process, said Mamadou Gueye, 57, who works with abused children in Saint-Louis.
In recent decades, some rights groups say the school children, called talibes, have at times been kept by marabouts in dire conditions, forced to beg for money and beaten if they do not come back with enough. There are no safeguards for children who escape and find themselves alone on the streets, they say.
The ill-treatment of talibes was a largely taboo subject in Senegal, but awareness campaigns have slowly provoked debate.
President Macky Sall, who touts himself as a modernising president with a series of large infrastructure projects to his name, in 2016 launched a plan ordering the removal of children from the streets and said those who force them to beg would be jailed.
About 300 hundred were helped by the program in 2018, government figures show.
"These are our children, and we are trying to involve everyone in protecting them," said Alioune Sarr, head of Child Protection in the Senegalese government. The government has set up a free hotline to report cases of child abuse, he said.
The issue has come into focus ahead of Sunday's presidential election. Two of the five candidates, Ousmane Sonko and Issa Sall, said their programs include measures to regulate the daaras system and end child begging.
Human Rights Watch says over 100,000 children are still sent out to beg.
In Saint-Louis, as in the capital Dakar, groups of children weave through traffic asking for money, wearing shorts and ragged football shirts bearing the names of their millionaire heroes.
At Maison de la Gare, talibes can eat a sandwich, shower, wash their clothes and receive first aid assistance. There are opportunities to learn English and play sport.
"I'm learning karate so I can defend myself," said eight-year-old Demba, who said he was once forced by a teacher to stay out all night and beg for money, only to be robbed by a drunk man at 6 a.m.
He did not give the name of the marabout, or the school.
After being away from home, Demba expressed mixed feelings about the family that sent him to the school in the first place.
"I no longer feel anything towards my parents," Demba said. "I don't even know if I'm angry at them or not."
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(Editing by Edward McAllister, William Maclean)
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