Abolitionists’ Plight: The Fight for Human Rights in Mauritania

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MAURITANIA — In 1981, marked Mauritania shift to becoming the last country to abolish slavery. The government insists that slavery has disappeared since it got criminalized in 2007, and has created new laws and courts to prevent slavery. However, abolitionist Biram Dah Abeid, a leader of the Initiative for the Resurgence of the Abolitionist Movement (IRA), claims the trafficking of humans for domestic labor and sexual purposes is still rampant in Mauritania.

Abeid, who was born and raised in Mauritania, has been speaking out for slaves’ human rights in Mauritania for over 20 years, but says his passion for his work began as a child. His father informed him that Abeid was the first to be born free in his family. This is because of the children of slaves, often procured through rape, are automatically slaves as well. However, his father had been freed as an adult by his master.

Mauritanian slaves, usually belonging to the lower-class ethnic group of the Haratin, are mostly unregistered since they are born in captivity. Due to this and the fact that the government denies the existence of slavery, the number of slaves in Mauritania is uncertain, but predicted to be around 20 percent of the 3.67 million population.

This descendent-based slavery is the source of the problem in Mauritania. The country’s slave trade was the “foundation of the social structure and division of labor within households,” Abeid says. This practice, however unjust, has been the Mauritanian way of life for centuries, supporting economic and social stability. Today, it is still deeply ingrained in the culture, simply because many people accept slavery as an institution.

Slaves have no human rights in Mauritania.  The slaves are uneducated and unaware of life outside of their bondage. The thought of any other life is unimaginable. Moreover, with no one to provide for them and no education to help them provide for themselves, many choose to remain in captivity. This mindset is the chief goal of Abeid’s abolitionist movement.

He wants the slaves to realize the opportunities outside of bondage, and empower them to take control of their own lives.

Several slaves live in Abeid’s own house. One of them, Moctar Ould Sidi, spoke of how he was a domestic slave for the first 15 years of his life. He was regularly beaten by his owners, and has no education. His mother was initially angry with him for leaving with an IRA representative for freedom. However, Sidi claims his new life has given him purpose: “before…I was not a person. I was nothing…but now I feel that I am.”

Perhaps the greatest obstacles for the IRA are the Muslim precepts that flow through civic matters in Mauritania. The Koran is ambiguous towards slavery, and the global Muslim community is divided over the question if slaves should exist. Many of the religious leaders in Mauritania claim that slavery got supported by ancient Muslim texts written back in the eighth century.

Slaves, who are also mostly Muslim, often resign themselves to their fate because they believe their religion mandates their bondage.

Abeid, on the other hand, believes that Islam does not condone slavery and thinks those who claim otherwise are misinterpreting Islamic teaching. His problem is not with Islam, he says, but with “the use of Islam.” Back in 2014, he held a public prayer and rally in which he burned several Islamic texts that supposedly supported slavery. Such an act is considered apostasy and punishable by death in Mauritania.

Fortunately, Abeid has never faced more than a few months arrest for speaking out for human rights in Mauritania.  However, as a result of his actions, he has gotten arrested numerous times. The IRA has hosted a score of protests and events over the past several years, from sit-ins to hunger strikes to occupations.

The occupations have caught the most attention from authorities.  Abeid and his supporters often camp outside the residences of slave owners and refuse to leave until the police arrest the slave owners and free the slaves.

Police have attempted to break up the demonstrations with violent beatings and tear gas.  However, the protesters who are a combination of teachers, students, shop owners, and others, have remained active. Abeid and other leaders have faced several arrests and unfair trials for their work, while the few slave owners who are arrested often go free after a couple days or weeks.

Only two prosecutions brought against slave owners have ever been successful. However, the number of slave owners arrested and slaves freed is finally on the increase.

Funding is also a significant issue, as the IRA cannot obviously apply for government funding and grants, but rather relies on the support of patrons and donors. Abeid has spent the past few months traveling outside Mauritania, gathering outside support for the IRA.

However, he plans on going back to Mauritania soon. Abeid recognizes that his work has stirred up hope in his people. He plans on returning to keep leading the fight until every slave in Mauritania is free, and every citizen has their essential human rights in Mauritania.

Sydney Cooney

Photo: Flickr

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