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Slavery in Mauritania

Population: 3.5 million
Capital: Nouakchott
Major languages: Arabic (official), French
Major religion: Islam
Life expectancy: 57 years (men), 61 years (women)
Average income: US $1030

How many slaves are there in Mauritania?

There has been no definitive survey but SOS Esclaves, and some political parties believe that as much as 18 per cent of the population (600,000 people) may still be in slavery.

Who is in slavery?

The Hratine make up the main ‘slave caste’ and are descended from black African ethnic groups along the Senegal river who have historically been raided by White Moors.

The White Moors form the ethnic elite in Mauritania and control the economy, government, military and police. Today, virtually all cases of slavery in Mauritania, involves Hratine born into slavery and belonging to White Moors masters.

What does it mean to be a slave?

Those who are still in slavery today are treated as property by their masters. They are never paid for the work they do, although they may be given food and shelter. Slaves often suffer from degrading treatment, are excluded from education and politics, and are not allowed to own land or inheriting property.

What do slaves do?

The men and children care for the animals, which are usually camels, cows, and goats. In some cases, slaves work the master’s land and give them a percentage of the crops to him. Female slaves who live in their masters’ homes are rarely allowed out of the master’s camp and generally work from before sunrise to after sunset, caring for the master’s children, fetching water, gathering firewood, pounding millet, moving tents made of heavy animal skin and performing other domestic tasks.

They face double discrimination both as members of the ‘slave caste’ and as women. Women in slavery are frequently beaten and raped by their masters who consider them to be their property. Their children are also considered to be the master’s property and, along with other slaves, can be rented out, loaned or given as gifts in marriage.

Why don’t slaves just run away?

While slaves in Mauritania are not chained or publicly beaten they remain totally dependent on their masters because they are dressed, fed and sheltered by them. In a vast country, much of it desert, it is extremely difficult to run away and leave their families. Those that do manage or choose to escape from slavery are left with few options and face an uncertain future.

Slavery and the misuse of Islam

Slaves are told that under Islam their paradise is bound to their master and that if they do what the master tells them, they will go to heaven. This is a powerful mechanism of control which teaches those who are enslaved to follow orders and accept their fate or they will be forsaken by God and live outside of Islam. Without access to education or alternative means of living, many believe that it is Allah’s wish for them to be slaves when in reality Islam dictates that a Muslim cannot enslave a fellow Muslim.

Is slavery accepted in Mauritania?

While the practice of slavery is illegal, deeply embedded discriminatory attitudes towards Hratines are the basis of slavery in Mauritania. Mauritania's caste-based society means that even those who are former slaves or descendents of former slaves are still considered to be part of the ‘slave-caste’ and are ostracised within society.

What are we doing in Mauritania?

Anti-Slavery International works in Mauritania with our local partner SOS Esclaves.  Slavery was officially banned in 1981 although it is still very commonplace with a strong caste system keeping the ethnic Hratine group in slavery.

Because of the nature of descent-based slavery in Mauritania, victims have been indoctrinated over generations into accepting their status as possessions of their masters and often have no concept of their own rights. Read more about slavery in Mauritania here.

Political instability in the country makes it very difficult for anti-slavery groups to prosecute slave owners and the law is rarely, if ever enforced. SOS Esclaves faces huge obstacles and threats to their safety as they challenge ideas around slavery which are so dominant in the country.

We work with our partner organisation SOS Escalves to provide support to people who escape from slavery. For those who are able to escape they leave with no possessions and face serious discrimination.

We help by:
  • Providing initial financial support and shelter
  • Help into long term training and provide low interest, small business loans so they can become financially independent
  • Legal assistance to prosecute former slave masters
  • Help to release family members that are still in slavery

In 2007 Mauritania’s parliament passed a law which criminalised slavery. It was first applied in November 2011 when Ahmed Ould El Hassine was sentenced to two years’ imprisonment. The new law is a definite improvement on the previous one which incredibly offered compensation to masters instead of punishing them. This was a significant step in terms of official acknowledgment that slavery exists and without the persistence of Anti-Slavery International with SOS Esclaves and other Mauritanian activists, this could not have happened.

Story of Moulkheir

"I grew up working for a family. I was born into the family – my mother worked for them before me. It was hard work. I had to go out and look after the goats in the day and then come back and do all the housework. I didn’t always get enough to eat. I was hit and beaten regularly. I had children and they all grew up working for the family too. Two of my girls are the daughters of the master’s eldest son. He said he would behead me if I ever told anyone it was him.

"When I had my fourth child, a baby girl, the family wouldn’t let me take her out to the fields with me. They said I couldn’t look after my baby and look after the goats as well. I came home one day and found that the baby had been left out in the sun all day. She had died and her body was being eaten by ants. No one had looked after her. I had to bury her myself, with my hands. There were no burial rites. I buried her how you’d bury a dog.

"One day someone from SOS-Esclaves learned I was a slave in the family and told the police. Someone warned the master that the police would come round, so I was sent to another home. They told me to say that I was a relative who came to visit them occasionally. I stayed with this new family for a while, but I was hungry and so were my children, my new master, the Colonel wouldn’t let me go. He said I belonged to him now. He decided he would marry my eldest daughter, she was very young. She cried and cried.

"He used to make me watch him rape her at gunpoint. He raped me too, in front of my two daughters, threatening us all with his gun. He did this on several occasions

"He took my daughter, and told me never to come back. I went and found my older brother and told him what had happened and he contacted SOS-Escalves. My daughter managed to escape with the help of the people from SOS while the Colonel was away

"I am now pressing charges against the Colonel, for the slavery and the rape of my daughter. SOS-Esclaves helped me so much. They found me somewhere to live, and all the women brought me clothes and things for the house."

Meriéme Mint Hamadi
Meriéme Mint Hamadi, 40
“The working conditions were extremely hard.  When I argued with the mistresses children, she would beat me.  I never went to school even though the mistress’s children did.  They never took me to the doctor’s when I was ill.”

Meriéme Mint Sa’ada
Meriéme Mint Sa’ada, age not known
“I was born a slave at my master’s place. When my master died I remained with his children.”

Mbarek Ould M’Barka
Mbarek Ould M’Barka, 34
“I worked from morning till night with no rest. If I said I was tired, the masters would not believe me. I was forced to eat scraps from my masters table and to dress in rags.”