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Slavery in Mauritania

In 1981, Mauritania made slavery illegal, the last country in the world to do so. Nonetheless, tens of thousands of people – mostly from the minority Haratine or Afro-Mauritanian groups – still live as bonded labourers, domestic servants, or child brides. Local rights groups estimate that up to 20% of the population is enslaved, with one in two Haratines forced to work on farms or in homes with no possibility of freedom, education, or pay.


Slavery has a long history in Mauritania. For centuries, Arabic-speaking Moors raided African villages, resulting in a rigid caste system that still exists to this day, with darker-skinned inhabitants beholden to their lighter-skinned “masters”. Slave status is passed down from mother to child, and anti-slavery activists are regularly tortured and detained. Yet the government routinely denies that slavery exists in Mauritania, instead of praising itself for eradicating the practice.


Mauritania is a bridge between the Arab Maghreb of North Africa and darker-skinned sub-Saharan Africa. The ruling Arab-Berbers have higher-paid positions in jobs and government, while the darker-skinned Haratines and Afro-Mauritanians are under-represented in leadership positions and face many obstacles in society, from access to education to well-paid jobs.


There are no reliable statistics on how many people are enslaved in Mauritania — the government does not include slaves in its census, and its official stance is that there are no slaves in the country because of the anti-slavery law passed in 2007. But the World Slavery Index estimates that Mauritania has one of the highest rates of enslavement on Earth, with more than 1 percent of the population engaged in forced labor. That number may not account for other, less-formalized types of indentured servitude.


Forced labor of all kinds has a long history in Mauritania, driven by centuries-old social divisions. Most slaves have been members of the Haratine tribes, indigenous West Africans who make up the country’s largest ethnic group — about 40 percent of the population. They are known locally as Black Moors. “White Moors” are Arab-Berbers from North Africa who took control of the region in the 17th century and have been enslaving Haratines ever since.


Slavery passes from one generation to the next, and Mauritania's government — long run by White Moors — has been reluctant to challenge the status quo.


Slavery in Mauritania is hardly ‘modern.’ It is an institution deeply rooted in the history of the country and region. The ruling minority Beydanes (Arab-Berbers) historically enslaved Haratin (or “Black Moors”). Afro-Mauritanians—black Mauritanians who do not have slave lineage—and the Haratin comprise 70 percent of Mauritanians, and both are largely excluded from political life and severely disadvantaged economically. But ethnic cleavages also exist between these groups, as the Beydane-dominated government used Haratin soldiers to kill and torture Afro-Mauritanians in waves of ethnic cleansing in the early nineties. Further, some Afro-Mauritanians were once slaveholders themselves.


Mauritania became the final country to abolish slavery. But it wasn’t until 2007 that the government passed a law allowing slaveholders to be prosecuted. However, it is uncommon for slaveholders to be arrested and those who are often see immediate release or are handed meager sentences. 


Abolitionists, such as Biram Dah Abeid, leader of the Initiative for the Resurgence of the Abolitionist Movement (IRA), have risked much to keep pressure on slaveholders and the government, increase awareness abroad, and advocate for both freed and enslaved Mauritanians. On August 2016, thirteen IRA members were handed prison sentences from three to fifteen years, after being found guilty of rebellion, among other things, for organizing a protest against the forced relocation of an informal settlement. According to their attorney, they were all tortured while in custody.


Slavery in Mauritania is sometimes justified by an aberrant interpretation of Islam, though perhaps more importantly, it is largely an economic and psychological institution. Enslaved Mauritanians are often bound to their “masters” by economic necessity and a sense of loyalty. A dearth of economic opportunities inhibits the ability of freed slaves to support themselves and their families.


While abolitionists like those of the IRA attempt to create the space necessary for enslaved Mauritanians to envision and seize a life outside of bondage, the government’s continued denial of the existence of slavery perpetuates the institution and the caste system, from which the ruling elites benefit. Despite the efforts of the abolitionists and human rights groups.



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