By Raymond BillyResonate News

Photo Courtesy of Shannon Varis

What people in developed countries might consider child abuse is commonplace in the Senegalese capital of Dakar, some say. Many children spend their days on the streets begging, rather than in school. Some walk around naked — or nearly so — the result of parental neglect and poverty. This is the context in which staffers at Teen Bi — a youth center in the Hann Plage community — seek to give youths guidance.

American Amy Farley was a missionary in Senegal for three years and worked at Teen Bi. She said many of the children she cared for seemed emotionally deprived.

“They are so hungry for love and attention,” said Farley, who returned to the U.S. in May. “Parents in Dakar aren’t as affectionate with their children as what Westerners are used to seeing.”

If many children in Senegal lack strong parental involvement in their lives, it is likely because rampant  polygyny there has left families unbalanced. About half of all marriages in the country are polygynous, according the 2010 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices issued by the U.S. State Department. That arraignment has left many of the children with absentee fathers. It has also put a severe burden on women to earn incomes to support their families while also trying to raise children. Although women comprise 52 percent of the population, they performed 90 percent of domestic work and 85 percent of agricultural work, according to the human rights report.

Mothers are left with little time — or are too dejected from working — to spend with their children, Farley said. The challenge for Teen Bi staffers is overcoming the deficits wrought by this lack of child nurturing at home, she said.

“Communicating with them is difficult because I’m not fluent in Wolof and most of the younger children haven’t learned French yet,” said Farley, 33, referring to the most common languages in the area. “They pretty much have to learn French if they’re going to have a chance to advance economically.”

But the educational deficits with which Senegalese children must cope —  75 percent of females and 58 percent of males older than 15 years are illiterate, according to the human rights report — are not the only barriers Teen Bi has to break through. The emotional walls built up by sexual abuse are also formidable, Farley said. “One of our girls hadn’t been to the youth center in weeks. When she returned, she was aloof and just sat in the corner with her hands folded,” Farley recalled of a teenage Teen Bi regular. “At first, I thought she was bored with our programs — maybe she needed to try something different. Then I found out she’d been raped and that put her behavior in a new light.

The State Department report found child rape to be widespread and underreported in Senegal. Plans are in the works for a sexual behavior seminar in Hann Plage that would be geared toward teaching children self-respect and how to properly cope with unwanted sexual advances and assaults, Farley said, noting one likely reason such incidents are kept secret.

“There are strong laws against child abuse in Senegal, but they’re not really enforced,” she said.

Farley said she hopes to see the same kind of emotional and developmental strides among the Tukulor people that some children in Hann Plage have made despite the obstacles. She said she’s been encouraged by seeing some of the boys she’s worked with overcome anger issues. Girls have closed academic achievement gaps relatively quickly, Farley said. The missionary expressed optimism about the future of the Senegalese people.

“There’s always hope for transformation and change — especially for children,” Farley said. “Transformation and change comes a lot from gaining the right worldview perspective and to the extent that these children are taught that perspective, there’s hope.”