Slavery: Unshackling Mauritania’s Secret

With Black History Month ending last month the issue of slavery is still as important as it was in the 19th century when Parliament finally prohibited the carrying of slaves in any British ship and passed the The Abolition of the Slave Trade Act in 1807. This was the turning point for the Abolitionists who still had to wait a further thirty years to achieve full emancipation throughout the British Empire. This movement to establish equality amongst man brought together a coalition of Christian abolitionists with different backgrounds and ideas for achieving their goals. Black and white, female and male, those pursuing political means, those advocating non-violent resistance, and those leading armed rebellion all came together as one. Remembering the achievements of diverse groups of actors who tirelessly worked to free men and women from the chains of slavery brings us to Mauritania: a country of where an estimated 10-20% of people remain enslaved today.

Mauritania: slavery in denial

Mauritania gained independence from France in 1960 and remains a politically unstable country where people are dependent on coup d’etats for a change in government. Newspaper headlines usually cover the fears of a growing Al Qaeda presence in the region; political instability and most recently the “accidental” shooting of President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz (who incidentally came into power in a military coup). Other than fear mongering headlines about AQIM (Al Qaeda in the Magreb) and the idiocies of “accidental” presidential shootings, we fail to hear about slavery from a country where approximately 340,000 to 680,000 people of Mauritania’s 3.4 million population are enslaved. Mauritania abolished slavery in 1989 and criminalised the act of owning another person as recently as 2007; however recent media reports have brought to light the very real nature of how slavery is a deeply ingrained part of Mauritanian society and is bolstered by under education and political and economic disenfranchisement. Whilst the Mauritanian Government has passed legislation formally abolishing slavery and punishing anyone owning another person, the Government remains in denial and refuses to acknowledge that slavery does exist in Mauritania.

The practice of slavery in Mauritania dates back to the 8th century and remains rooted in traditional ancestral slave-master relationships. Those who are still in slavery today are treated as property by their masters. Many slaves have been held for generations by slave holding families and are forced to work without pay as cattle herders or domestic roles. Men and children predominantly care for animals and female slaves work in the home in domestic roles. Furthermore female slaves face further discrimination in the guise of physical, emotional and sexual violence. Women that have been raped and have had children are also considered to be the slaveowner’s property and, along with other slaves, can be rented out, loaned or given as gifts in marriage. Slaves are completely marginalised from society and excluded from educational and political realms, thus making it even more difficult to break the physical and mental chains of slavery.

Slaveowners and slaves

Mauritania is a victim of poverty with almost half the population living on less than $2 a day, thus making slavery even more difficult to pin point as many slaveowners work alongside their slaves. The relationship is complex and ownership and slavery is dependent on the socio-economic divisions amongst the different groups in Mauritania. Due to desperate levels of poverty many run-away slaves return to their masters for food because there is no economic programme to help those secure livelihoods for themselves. Furthermore slave owners may be living in poverty too, thus may release slaves however this reveals the complicated relationship between slave owner and slave where socio-economic problems keep both tied to one another.

Slavery affects all in Mauritania however today the Haratine community make up the main ‘slave caste’ and more than half the of the Haratine community are estimated to live in slavery, through domestic servitude or forced labour. Mauritania suffers from a rigid caste system where White Moors control the vast majority of the administrative state. White Moors are light skinned people who speak Arabic and have been traditionally known to be slave owners; historically they raided, enslaved and assimilated people from a range of black ethnic groups across the Senegal River, who are also known today as the Haratine. The term ‘Haratine’ refers to slaves and people of slave descent thus even those who are former slavers or descendents of former slaves are still considered to be part of the ‘slave-caste’ and are ostracised from society. Whilst White Moors also dominate as the political and economic elite in Mauritania it is not uncommon to find White Moors living or working alongside their slaves in larger tents.

Racism is an important factor as Mauritanians live by a rigid caster system made up of White Arabs, Black Africans (this group is found in Sengal however were never enslaved) and the Haratine; however it is important to note that slavery in Mauritania is a complex phenomenon which goes beyond pitting ethnic groups against each other. Slavery is also perpetuated by the government’s denial that the practice exists; the poor enforcement of laws across a terrain that is 65% desert and where the practice of slavery is out of sight; religious justification for the continuation of slavery; poverty and the lack of education all contribute to the continuation. Many slaves do not understand that they are enslaved and activists say slaves believe their place as a slave is the normal way of life. Such a mix of factors reveals combating slavery in Mauritania will need a holistic approach where the government, NGOS, activists and the people themselves need to work together and demand change.

What is being done?

Whilst the Mauritanian government has passed several laws to abolish and punish those practicing slavery, the laws remain impaired by a lack of political will to honestly address the realities of slavery. The 2007 law prohibiting slavery, including hereditary slavery, was a turning point in Mauritanian history making the practice of slavery punishable by up to ten years in prison and slavery apologists could be imprisoned for two years. Such steps were a great win for Mauritania’s abolitionists however in 2009 the UN Special Rapporteur on Contemporary Forms of Slavery stated slavery still existed and the law suffered from a lack of implementation. The 2007 Anti-Slavery Law is further undermined by its requirements that slaves must file a legal complaint before any prosecution can be pursued; many slaves are illiterate and are unable to complete such paperwork which is further compounded by laws barring NGOs from filing complaints on behalf of the slave. With no support programmes to assist victims with the filing of complaints slaves have very few options to bring their cases to light.

Local NGOs have been at the heart of the abolitionist movement in Mauritania including organisations like Al’Hor (meaning “the free”), In’itaq (meaning “emancipation) and SOS Esclaves who is partnered with Anti-Slavery International. Anti-Slavery International provides financial support and shelter; long term training and provides financial assistance to former slaves so they can become financially independent as well as provided legal assistance to prosecute former slave masters and help release family members that are still in slavery. Working on the ground SOS Esclaves, an organisation founded in 1995 and brought together a former slave owner and slave to become one of the leading organisations in Mauritania trying to abolish slavery. Boubacar Messaoud, a son of a slave, met Abdel Nasser Ould Ethmane, a former slave owner; both tell their stories of how they met and how their upbringings radically changed their perspectives of what life meant to be as a slave and to be a slaverowner. Both rejected the belief that slavery is a natural state of being eventually found one another and founded SOS Esclaves.

SOS Esclaves works to bring the stories of victims to light and to educate people that slavery is not a normal state of being. It works directly with victims documenting their stories, the abuses and providing support to pursue a life independently. Due to the nature of descent-based slavery in Mauritania, slaves have come to accept their status as possessions of their masters as the norm and often have no concept of their own rights. Slavery is rooted in traditional, ancestral master-slave relationships were slaves have never known the idea of being able to legal own their own property, let alone even have a surname. SOS Esclaves faces many challenges however at its core it is a movement committed to a “...struggle against oppression that unites both direct and indirect victims of slavery with people of goodwill from any ethnic background.”

SOS Esclaves has helped former slaves escape abusive owners and supported men, women and children in becoming independent beings however the organisation has faced harassment from state authorities over the years as well as imprisoning both founders. A recent investigation, Slavery’s last Stronghold, into slavery by CNN journalists reveal how state authorities monitored the journalists activities; the fear slaves have of telling the truth about their shocking situations and the denial of slavery existing in Mauritania today. Nonetheless both Anti Slavery International and SOS Esclaves tirelessly work together to bring justice to former slaves as well as bringing their stories to light in Mauritania and across the world as a means to education others about the complex issues that perpetuate the existence of slavery in Mauritania.