Fighting Modern Slavery in Mauritania

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NOUAKCHOTT, Mauritania — Mauritania has long been a stronghold for slavery. Mirroring ancient practices, slavery in Mauritania is rooted in a rigid caste system, where social status is determined by birth. Slavery has a firm grasp on culture and politics in Mauritania, but recent anti-slavery policy suggests a turning point.

Mauritania abolished slavery in 1981, the last country on earth to do so. The practice of slavery was criminalized in 2007, although laws are rarely enforced. Since then, only two cases have resulted in prosecution.

In 2012, the UN Special Rapporteur on Contemporary Forms of Slavery reported that 10 to 20 percent of the population in Mauritania lived in slavery. Since then, the Walk Free Foundation believes this has decreased to one percent of the population.

Seemingly endless desert sands cover vast areas of Mauritania. The country is sparsely populated and only 0.2 percent of the land is farmable. Poverty is rampant and economic opportunities are scarce. Slave owners and slaves alike are often illiterate and poor, making a prosperous life of freedom seem impossible. The literacy rate is 51 percent and unemployment sits at 30 percent.

The problem of slavery in Mauritania is complicated by the air of secrecy that surrounds its existence. The current president claims that only the “legacy” of slavery persists, not the practice itself. The police often refuse to investigate slavery cases and judges often dismiss cases.

Anti-slavery efforts are further hampered by the repression of activists. After a June protest, 13 anti-slavery activists were arrested and convicted of attacks against the government, armed assembly and membership in an unrecognized organization. The defendants claimed they were not present at the protest.

As a result of the multigenerational caste system, many slaves do not know that they are slaves. Rather, many slaves believe their place in the world is to work without pay or rights to their own children. In order to empower slaves to pursue their freedom, they must first acknowledge their servitude and believe that they can be free.

The anti-slavery group SOS Slaves works to empower slaves to claim their freedom. The group publicizes stories in order to educate the enslaved population, with the ultimate goal of convincing Mauritanians that slavery is both a gross injustice and a hindrance to the progression of their society.

While slavery remains ingrained in Mauritanian culture, recent anti-slavery policy provides hope for eradicating slavery in Mauritania. In 2015, the government classified slavery as a crime against humanity, doubled the sentence for convicted offenders and created a special anti-slavery court. Although prosecutions are still uncommon, the anti-slavery movement is beginning to receive the attention it deserves.

In a recent case, a slave owner was sentenced in Mauritania, but believing the sentence too lenient, the accusers brought the case to the regional court of the African Committee of Experts on the Rights and Welfare of the Child, an arm of the African Union. A harsher sentence from the regional court could influence standards of punishment in Mauritania, empowering slaves and deterring slave owners. U.S. Ambassador to Mauritania Larry Andre said commitment to enforcement of harsh penalties would send a clear message that “those who deny freedom to others risk losing their own”.

Even after their freedom is returned, former slaves struggle to adapt. SOS Slaves hopes to combat this problem with a training center for former slaves. Currently, 30 women are enrolled at its center, where they learn skills such as hairdressing, sewing and garment design. The SOS Slaves training center eases the transition out of slavery and ensures that freedom is sustainable.

In order to combat slavery, the government and international community should invest in education in Mauritania. The U.N. has proposed changes for the Mauritanian government, including providing lawyers to victims, allowing international monitors to conduct surveys and funding groups like SOS Slaves to help current and former slaves return to civilized society.

Education and empowerment are the keys to ending slavery. Building on recent momentum, these tools have the power to transform Mauritanian culture and the economy. In order to lift citizens out of poverty and develop profitable industries, slavery in Mauritania must be abolished in written law and ingrained culture.

McKenna Lux

Photo: Flickr

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