In Senegal, for hundreds of years, young boys have been sent away from home to study at Koranic schools, known as daaras. There, the students (known as talibes) are guided in their religious studies by their strict teachers, the marabout. In recent decades, daaras began to sprout up more and more in urban settings. Divorced from traditional agricultural support, the marabout forced their students to beg on the streets in order to pay for the functioning of the school. Despite increasing criticism of this exploitative system, the Senegalese government took up little action.

Enter Portuguese photojournalist Mario Cruz, who gained access to the dark side of these Koranic schools. Bravely capturing disturbing photographs of the awful, slave-like conditions under which these young boys live, Cruz managed to bring back evidence of certain abuses for the very first time.

As he describes in the interview below, his photographs have been instrumental in bringing about much-needed change to the plight of the talibes. Learn more about this shocking but ultimately inspiring story of change:

For this work, Cruz was awarded a 1st prize in the Contemporary Issues category at the 2016 World Press Photo Awards. He will also be publishing a book of this work, titled Talibes: Modern Day Slaves, coming out in fall 2016.

Human Rights Watch published a recent report that stated, “A 2014 government census of daaras, or Quranic schools, found over 30,000 boys subjected to forced begging in the Dakar region alone.” Read that report to learn more.