What is descent-based slavery?
Descent-based slavery describes a situation where people are born into slavery. This is usually because their ancestors were captured into slavery, and their families have ‘belonged’ to the slave-owning families ever since. The slavery status is passed down the maternal line.
This form of slavery can still be found across the Sahel belt of Africa, including in Mauritania, Niger, Mali, Chad and Sudan. Many other African societies also have a traditional hierarchy where people are known to be the descendants of slaves or slave-owners.
The impact of descent-based slavery
People born into descent-based slavery face a lifetime of exploitation and are treated as property by their so-called ‘masters’. They work without pay, herding animals, working in the fields or in their masters’ homes, often in very isolated places. They can be inherited, sold, or given away as gifts or wedding presents. Children can be taken away from their mothers at an early age, and put to work without ever attending school.
Women and girls in this form of slavery often face sexual abuse and rape, and often have to bear their masters’ children. In turn, their children will also be owned by their masters.
Escaping from descent-based slavery is enormously challenging. Those who do manage to break free often find it hard to adapt to independent life, to establish links with relatives and other community members, and find decent work. Many thousands of people who have left their masters – even generations ago – still bear the stigma of being of the ‘slave class’ and face ongoing discrimination.
Anti-slavery legislation is often not well known and poorly implemented. Some laws can make it even harder for people to break free, as they may require identification documents. People who have been raised in slavery find it difficult to obtain the identification documents that are needed to access their basic civil rights – such as the right to vote and go to school, or to open a bank account – because their births were not registered formally, and many cannot prove who their father is or even the date of their birth.
What we do
We currently work with local partners in Mauritania and Niger:
- In Mauritania the projects help people escape slavery, support them to rebuild their lives in freedom, and work on legal cases to prosecute their former masters as well as advocating for better implementation of laws.
- In Niger the projects established nine schools for the children of communities emerging from slavery and campaign for better legislation against slavery and its enforcement, including through legal challenges.
In both Mauritania and Niger, our partners are campaigning for better access to ID and birth registration documents for people of slave descent.
“I grew up working as a slave for a family. My mother worked for them before me and my children also worked for the family once they were old enough.
I didn’t always get enough to eat and was beaten regularly.”
Anti-Slavery International’s partner SOS-Esclaves helped Moulkheir to escape and supported her to build her new life in freedom.
Learn more about our work on descent-based slavery