Undercover investigation reveals widespread child abuse inside Sudan’s religious khalwa schools
— 3 minute read — By Derry Salter
A two-year covert investigation has revealed that thousands of boys in Islamic schools across Sudan in northeast Africa are being abused and kept in chains.
A BBC News Arabic investigation, titled ‘The Schools That Chain Boys’, uncovered the systematic child abuse taking place in the 30,000 nationwide ‘khalwa’ schools. The discoveries were uncovered by Fateh al-Rahman al-Hamdani, a former khalwa student and now an undercover reporter for the BBC, after he secretly filmed inside 23 of the schools over the space of eighteen months.
To the public eye, khalwas are merely traditional Islamic schools in Sudan where children are provided shelter, food and drink, and taught to memorise the Quran at no cost to the parents or family. Due to the lack of fees, many poorer families consider them an alternative to mainstream education, with the appeal of free student boarding. But in reality, these schools have become a hotbed for child abuse. The investigation found malnourished boys as young as five living in slum-like conditions and being frequently tortured, sexually abused and beaten by the men in charge, known as ‘Sheikhs’.
The documentary centres on two students – Mohamed Nader and Ismail – both of whom were tortured inside their khalwa for five days without food and water. The documentary follows the boys’ recovery from their torture as well as their families’ plight for justice – calling for the closure of all khalwas.
Mohamed Nader, who witnessed the atrocities first hand, said “the worst thing about the khalwa is the rape. They make you go against your will”. Reports from a BBC forensics doctor provided substantial evidence that the claims of sexual abuse were true.
The Sheikh in charge of the boys’ khalwa was confronted during the investigation, admitting that it was wrong to imprison the children. However, the religious leader argued that the torture implemented inside the schools was ‘packed with benefits’ and denied all claims of sexual abuse. The power that Sheikhs hold in Sudanese society makes it hard for the victims’ impoverished families to complain about the atrocities.
According to the BBC report, three teachers and Sheikh Hussein, the head of the school, were charged in relation to Mohamed Nader’s and Ismail’s case. All four of the defendants however have been released on bail and are yet to go to trial.
As a result of the documentary, the Sudanese government issued a statement claiming they would be prosecuting all the schools that featured in the investigation as well as implementing a new law prohibiting the beating of children in educational institutions. Yet, Sudan’s Minister of Religious Affairs, Nasreldin Mofreh, has said that it is impossible to “solve a problem caused by 30 years of the old regime overnight”.
Sudan’s state prosecutors have been slow to act concerning the crimes against children. Batool Sharif Ahmed, a Public Prosecutor in Omdurman, stated to the BBC that “this is just normal practice inside khalwas. These children are sent…with the consent of their parents.”
The documentary has caused a global outcry on social media, with many beyond Sudan calling for the khalwas to be closed. However, many others have argued that the BBC investigation is an attack on Islam and merely anti-Islam propaganda.
At the time of publication, it is clear that hundreds of young boys are still at risk of abuse inside these khalwas.