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Slavery in Mauritania

The Islamic Republic of Mauritania is a largely desert nation in West Africa bordering Western Sahara and Algeria in the north, and Senegal and Mali in the south and east. The majority of its population of 3.1 million people are pastoralists and live a precarious existence depending heavily on drought-prone agriculture, leaving them among some of the worlds poorest people.

Whilst there has been no definitive research on the extent of slavery in the country, SOS Esclaves estimate that approximately 18 per cent of Mauritania's population (over half a million people) live in slavery today.

Slavery has existed in Mauritania for hundreds of years and is deeply rooted within society across the country. The Haratine are the group most affected by slavery practices and are traditionally owned by Bidane, or white moors, the minority ruling elite of Arab-Berber descent in Mauritania. Historically the white moors raided and enslaved people from the indigenous black population and today, all cases of slavery in Mauritania involve people whose ancestors were enslaved before them.

Slavery status is an inherited status. This age-old distinction underpins the very nature of slavery in Mauritania whereby individuals are assigned to a 'slave caste' which is ascribed at birth. Those in slavery are devoid of all their fundamental human rights, are owned and controlled by their masters, and are treated like their property. They are forced to work for their masters throughout their lives and are never paid for their work. They do what their masters tell them to do or they are threatened and abused.

Men primarily herd cattle and work on the farmland of their masters, whilst women carry out an abundance of domestic chores. Girls start work for their masters at a very young age and throughout their lives continue to undertake all domestic duties, including fetching water and firewood, cooking, doing the laundry, caring for the children of their master, and moving the tents. They are first to get up in the morning and last to go to sleep. Enslaved women and girls face double discrimination, not only because of their 'slave-caste' but also by virtue of their gender. They are rarely permitted to leave the home of their master and are often subjected to violence and rape. Who they marry and at what age are also the decisions of their master. When they bear children, they instantly become the property of their masters and the cycle continues, with many of the children serving the master for their entire lives or being passed onto their relatives to serve as gifts.

Individuals subjected to slavery undergo a form of indoctrination ingrained from hundreds of years of tradition. They are erroneously told that under Islam if they disobey their masters they will not go to paradise. In reality, Islam prohibits a Muslim from enslaving a fellow Muslim, but the weight of cultural conditioning makes breaking from this societal norm and psychological tie a difficult endeavour.

Most people living in slavery are also 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. Women find it particularly hard to escape for fear of loosing touch with their children. Those that do manage or choose to escape from slavery are left with few options and face an uncertain future. There are few employment opportunities and those escaping slavery often have no education and few prospects. Men can generally only get work as porters or night watchmen, and women as domestics or in sex work.
Deeply embedded discriminatory attitudes not only contribute to the persistence of slavery in Mauritania but provide the context for further marginalisation and social exclusion. Mauritania's stratified society means that even those who are former slaves or descendents of slaves still live under the stigma of their 'slave-class' and are ostracised within society. They suffer from degrading treatment, are frequently excluded from education and the decision-making process, and are prohibited from owning land or inheriting property; practices which render them powerless and keep them on the bottom rung of the economic ladder. Politically repressed and with no prospect of economic independence, those enslaved and formerly enslaved are unable to access their human rights and have few choices in life.

Read about Kheidama's experience

Slavery and the law

Slavery was first prohibited in Mauritania in 1961 after it achieved independence from French colonial rule and principles contained in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights were incorporated into the Mauritanian Constitution the following year. It was not until 1981 that slavery was officially abolished by presidential decree (although slavery was not made a crime), making Mauritania the last country in the world to abolish slavery.

Successive military dictatorships continued to aggressively deny and ignore the existence of slavery in the country and failed to introduce legislation to criminalise it. In August 2005, a bloodless coup d'état paved the way for change with the newly formed transitional government holding the first ever public meeting to discuss slavery. Following on from the first ever democratic elections in March 2007, President elect, Sidi Ould Cheikh Abdallahi, officially acknowledged the existence of slavery and reaffirmed his commitment to addressing the issue as a matter of urgency.

In a historic step forwards for Mauritania in tackling slavery, a new law criminalising it was unanimously adopted by the Mauritanian Parliament in August 2007. The new law makes the practise of slavery punishable by up to 10 years in prison and states that anyone supporting slavery could be imprisoned for two years. Additionally, it provides monetary compensation to those released from slavery or victims of slavery practises.

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Read about Kheidama's experience


bonded labour in India

Meriéme Mint Hamadi was taken from her mother as a child and was forced to carry out all the domestic work for her master. 
©Anti-Slavery International


children in school in Haiti

Meriéme Mint Sa'ada who was born a slave is now claiming her rights and freedom with the help of SOS Esclaves. 
©Anti-Slavery International