In the large, sparsely populated desert country of Mauritania, slavery is rife – despite being outlawed in 1981 and made a crime against humanity in 2012.
Mauritania, on the western coast of the Sahara, has the highest prevalence of slavery per head of population, according to the 2013 Global Slavery Index. Compiled by the anti-slavery charity Walk Free Foundation, the index found that 151,000 people – almost four per cent of the entire population – may be living in slavery. Estimates by other groups put this figure at up to 20 per cent.
Slavery in Mauritania primarily takes the form of chattel slavery, with slave status being passed down through the generations from people originally captured during historical raids by slave-owning groups.
It is also tied up with racism. Mauritanian society is made up of three main ethnic groups: Haratins, Afro-Mauritanians and White Moors. Generational slavery is perpetuated because Haratins – black Africans stolen from villages a few centuries ago during Arab-African wars – are traditionally seen as the property of the White Moors.
Abidine Ould-Merzough, a human rights activist and member of the Haratin community now living in Germany, says the White Moors – a minority in Mauritania – wield a disproportionate amount of political power. ‘They want to keep the Haratin community underdeveloped – if they allow them to be educated, they will refuse to be slaves and will be a competitor for power,’ he says.
Indoctrination is a key feature of slavery in Mauritania, with religious teachings used to justify the practices of slavery. ‘There’s an interpretation of Islam that says society is divided into two – masters and slaves,’ says Ould-Merzough. ‘The slaves accept this and believe their status is willed by God.’
Some critics say that Mauritania’s geopolitical role (it’s seen as an important Western ally against Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb) has led to slavery in the country being overlooked. As for the Mauritanian government, it emphasizes the fact that slavery is prohibited and says that any cases that come to light are vigorously punished.
Despite the shocking stories and hard-hitting statistics about the prevalence of slavery, there are positive developments afoot. ‘The anti-slavery movement in Mauritania is becoming bigger and bigger and that really keeps me optimistic,’ says Saidou Wane, a Mauritanian human rights activist based in the US. ‘There is progress being made: people are waking up and starting to understand the issue. And it’s happening across the board, with some Arabs [White Moors] getting involved, too.