NOUAKCHOTT, Mauritania–In today’s world, many people think of slavery as a thing of the past. In the United States, slavery has been illegal for over almost 150 years. However, there are still areas of the world where slavery is still very much a problem and international help has been needed to end the practices. Mauritania, in Northeastern Africa, has made steps towards abolishing slavery in the past decade, but it remains a serious problem.
Mauritania continued practicing slavery through the colonial era, even after a French ban in 1905 that purportedly ended slavery until the trade was actually abolished in 1981. The practice remained widespread in Mauritania well after the law passed. The act of owning a slave was not actually made a crime until 2007, but the practice is still considered to be widespread in the country. A 2012 report by CNN estimated that 10 to 20% of the population was in slavery. In the first five years after the law was passed, only one case had been successfully prosecuted, despite the many still in bondage.
Slavery in Mauritania takes a number of forms. Sex slavery is currently the most prevalent form of slavery in the world but while that is one of the forms of slavery in Mauritania, it is far from the most common one. Slavery there tends to take more of a traditional form, where people are born into slavery and made to do tasks for an owner family.
The reasons for that structure most likely have to do with the tradition of slavery in Mauritania, yet it does not make slavery there any less brutal. By definition, slaves do not have any rights and horrendous crimes are regularly committed against them. Lack of education leads to many of these slaves being taught, through misled religious beliefs or other methods, that they have no options to break their bondage.
There has been a substantial movement within Mauritania to end slavery. As reported by the New York Times, urban areas have been sites of protests at government sites, as those citizens push for enforcement of the antislavery laws. However, in rural areas which are out of reach of the centralized government, slavery persists and is even prevalent in some areas.
International criticism helped provoke the laws passed in 2007 criminalizing slavery in Mauritania; since then, the United Nations has tried to work with Mauritania to make further progress in the anti-slavery mission. In 2011, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights visited Mauritania and reiterated the need to end the nation’s slave practice. Encouraging news has come early in 2014, as a tribunal was enacted to prosecute crimes of slavery, a positive move considering the few prosecutions that have been made under anti-slavery laws.
While Mauritania has made progress, slavery still exists in the nation. Organizations like The Borgen Project will continue to write about these injustices as they are recognized. The 2013 movie “Twelve Years a Slave” vividly depicts the experience of a slave in the 19th century, spreading awareness of the reality of its atrocities. While in the U.S. such experiences have disappeared, in other areas of the world, those same slave stories continue.
– Eric Gustafsson