By Kieran Guilbert

DAKAR (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Dressed in ill-fitting football kits and covered in dust and dirt, dozens of young boys chatter, laugh and chase a ball as Maimouna Balde leafs through a list of names.

When a scuffle breaks out between two boys, Balde instantly steps between the former child beggars in the yard of the shelter for abandoned children in Senegal's capital, Dakar.

"It is tough here - many of the boys have been beaten by their teachers and forced to live on the streets," the head of the Ginddi center told the Thomson Reuters Foundation, reading a file listing boys as young as five and notes on various abuses.

Many of these children, known as talibe, are sent by parents in Senegal or trafficked from neighboring countries such as Guinea-Bissau to Islamic schools, called daaras, where they are expected to receive food, shelter and teachings from the Koran.

But tens of thousands of children in daaras across the West African nation are forced to beg in the streets to make money for their teachers, called marabouts, said rights groups such as Human Rights Watch (HRW) and Anti-Slavery International (ASI).

These influential Islamic figures, respected and even feared by communities and politicians, punish their pupils if they fail to bring in some 2,000 CFA francs ($3) per day, activists said.

Alongside a drive to take the talibe off the streets, the state is considering a law to regulate daaras - seeking to raise teaching standards and eliminate trafficking and forced begging.

Yet activists are concerned that the clout of marabouts may hold back efforts to protect children in the Koranic schools as Senegal wrestles with its identity amid a rising tide of Islamist militancy in the region.

Many people in the Muslim-majority but staunchly secular West African nation are asserting their cultural and religious identity over Western values in response to growing anti-Islam sentiment in Europe and elsewhere, said Sarah Mathewson of ASI.

"This extends to marabouts feeling excluded from Senegal's education system, which operates in French," she said. "They must be integrated and supported if things are to improve."

MARABOUT MAFIA

Many of the talibe arriving at the Ginddi center are sick and traumatized, according to staff at the state-run shelter, which works to reunite children with their families.

President Macky Sall in June ordered the removal of children from the streets and said those who force them to beg would be imprisoned in a drive to end a practice estimated by the United Nations to generate $8 million a year for Koranic teachers in the capital.

Yet fewer than 1,000 talibe of more than 30,000 in Dakar have been swept off the streets to date, with marabouts hiding them away or dressing them smartly to evade detection, said the state's national director of child protection Niokhobaye Diouf.

"Many disappeared after Sall's announcement ... hidden by the crooked people who profit from their begging," Diouf said.

Many activists have questioned the political will behind the drive, announced just days after the United States downgraded Senegal in its annual Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report.

Sall vowed to close unsafe daaras after nine children died in 2013 in a fire, yet few have been shut down, while an anti-trafficking law passed in 2005 to stop the abuse of talibe has since led to only a dozen prosecutions of marabouts, HRW said.

A draft law to regulate and modernize the daaras has stalled amid concerns from marabouts about the integration of the schools into Senegal's education system, activists said.

There are doubts whether the curriculum in the religious schools offers pupils the best future, according to a report by the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs at Georgetown University.

Yet with Koranic teachings firmly ingrained in the fabric of Senegalese culture, people want to see the daaras valued and protected, said Katherine Marshall, a professor at Georgetown.

"People say you can't allow a mafia, this small percentage of marabouts involved in abuse, to tar the whole system," said Marshall, a former World Bank country director for the Sahel.

BREAKING THE CYCLE

In a police station in the northern city of Saint-Louis, Issa Kouyate signed a form to secure the release of a teenage talibe, Mamadou, held in a cell overnight on suspicion of stealing a laptop.

As they walk towards Maison de la Gare, a talibe shelter run by Kouyate, the activist calmly spoke to the 15-year-old in his native language Wolof, squeezing his hand gently to comfort him.

"The boys I work with, they don't know what to do or have any skills, because they only know the Koran," said Kouyate, his phone ringing constantly with reports of disputes and abuses.

Recalling cases where marabouts chained talibe to the floor, wounded them with nails and beat them until they could no longer move, Kouyate said the onus was on parents to insist on change.

Civil society groups such as SOS Children's Villages and Mozdahir have adopted this approach, bringing parents and marabouts together and ensuring that young people learn subjects including French and skills ranging from carpentry to sewing.

"By persuading people to stop donating money to talibe and offering marabouts a new vision of education, we can break the vicious cycle of begging," said Moussa Ndoye, head of a project to end begging in Dakar's Gueule Tapee neighborhood.

Yet such efforts are being hindered by the trafficking of children to daaras from nearby Gambia, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau and Mali, migration experts said.

Around 40 percent of the 800 talibe taken to the Ginddi center to date are from Guinea-Bissau, state data shows.

"Porous borders and a lack of police coordination highlight the difficulty of fighting this phenomenon," said Michele Bombassei of the International Organization for Migration (IOM).

"If we are ever going to win this battle, we will win it at the community and cultural level - at the source," he added.

PUSH FOR PROSECUTIONS

Many activists said prosecuting marabouts is key to ending abuses. "With the regulatory law in limbo and daaras not part of the education system, how else can Senegal ensure talibe are not subjected to begging and abuse?" said Lauren Seibert of HRW.

Yet few prosecutors choose to take on cases against marabouts, according to a spokesman for the justice ministry's anti-trafficking task force (CNLTP).

Only a handful of marabouts have been jailed in cases of extreme abuse and deaths of talibe in recent years, activists said, while Senegal has only made two convictions for forced begging since 2014, found the U.S. TIP report.

"It may be harder to change the mindset of prosecutors than that of marabouts," said Laetitia Bazzi of the U.N. children's agency (UNICEF).

Dialogue between marabouts, civil society and the state is underpinned by fears of rising extremism in Senegal, after a string of major attacks on hotels across West Africa by al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb's (AQIM) over the past year.

While Senegal's moderate Sufi form of Islam has historically insulated it from radicalization, there are radical teachers and imams with influence across the country, security experts say.

"Many marabouts are involved in the push to raise standards and stamp out abuse," said Mathewson of ASI.

"But there is a perception among some that the agenda for reform comes from the West ... this needs to be addressed."

(Reporting By Kieran Guilbert, Editing by Ros Russell; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit news.trust.org)