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Slavery in Mauritania

Although some believe that as much as 18 per cent of the population (600,000 people) may still be affected by slavery there has been no definitive survey carried out, therefore any numbers are only rough estimates. However, it is believed that thousands of people still remain enslaved. 

The Haratine 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 Haratine born into slavery and belonging to White Moors masters.

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. People in slavery often suffer from degrading treatment, are excluded from education and politics, and are not allowed to own land or inheriting property.

The men and children care for the animals, usually camels, cows and goats. In some cases, people are forced to work the master’s land and give them a percentage of the crops to him. Women 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. They 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. People in slavery can be rented out, loaned or given as gifts in marriage.

While people in slavery 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.

Under a misguided interpretation of Islam, those in slavery are told that 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 enslaved when in reality Islam dictates that a Muslim cannot enslave a fellow Muslim.

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

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Wahaya womenTabass was sold three times to three different masters over 12 years, the first time when she was just seven years old.
Read her story   

Descent based slaveryMoulkheir grew up as a slave, just like her mother, and her children shared the same fate.
Read her story