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A Haratine woman in Mauritania

Exposing a slave society

25 April 2017

I think this is unbelievable that people today still have masters. Mauritania is the only country where people are born as slaves. That’s crazy. We really want to create precedents for people to feel confident in the law and to use the law as a tool to emancipate them from slavery,’ says Emmanuelle Tremeau, Africa programme officer at Anti-Slavery International.

In 2007, the Mauritanian government enacted new anti-slavery legislation and four years later, for the first time someone was convicted for breaking this law. The Mauritanian court ruled in favour of children, Said Ould Salem (born 2000) and Yarg Ould Salem (born 2003), who were born into slavery and became the property of their mother’s master. Their master was given a two-year sentence, and required to pay compensation. However, the law states the guilty party’s prison sentence should be between 5 and 10 years. Therefore, the legal team of MRG, Anti-Slavery and the local lawyer decided to appeal the sentence. At the same time, the man convicted also appealed. The court decided that he should be released on bail pending the appeal. This meant that he had served only a few weeks of his sentence and the situation continued for four years with no appeal hearings in sight. The legal team and partners felt that this sent signals condoning slavery, rather than sending a strong signal to Mauritanian society that slavery must stop.

Since there was no progress on the case, in December 2015 – four years after the original decision – the legal team submitted it to the African Committee of Experts on the Rights and Welfare of the Child (ACERWC) hoping to use this regional mechanism to push the Mauritanian courts into action.

The Mauritanian government decided to hear the Said and Yarg case on 27 October 2016, the same day that MRG and its partner’s legal team were going to be presenting the case before the ACERWC. ‘Then they come to the African Committee and say it’s going to be decided next week. After five years, it’s really obvious,’ says Lucy Claridge, MRG’s legal director. Says Ruth Barry, legal officer, ‘We didn’t feel it was any coincidence.’ It seemed pretty clear to many people that the government and the courts had reacted to try to avoid criticism from the regional mechanism.

Claridge suggests that there is a conflict of interest within the government that leads to difficulties prosecuting slavery cases. ‘A lot of the judiciary have slaves themselves because they’re from the Arab upper class, so why would they criticize something or pass judgment against something which is essentially judging their peers, judging the group in society that they belong to, even though they should do under the law.’

Eventually the hearing was moved to 7 November 2016, when the Court of Appeal increased the compensation awarded to the two boys. ‘The slave master’s sentence of two years remained unchanged but bail was revoked,’ says Sarah Mathewson, Africa programme coordinator at Anti-Slavery International. ‘Obviously the work on the Said and Yarg case, taking the case to the African Committee has been a big advocacy coup for us. Being able to say, because of its inaction the Mauritanian government is being held to account in a regional court. It demonstrates that we had a strong case in Mauritania that should have been prosecuted fully with the sentence being fully implemented. Now being able to point to that case and the level it reached is very useful.’ Using the ACERWC as a legal mechanism was instrumental towards having the government hear the appeal and give their decision. ‘Now he [the master] is back in prison, which is a direct result of MRG’s work,’ says Mathewson.

‘Traditionally, the legal profession, lawyers, will win a case and once they have a judgment, they walk away but we don’t do that. We win a case and try to make sure it actually makes change on the ground, so having a wider programme around it is making sure that the law is actually implemented itself,’ according to Claridge. Bringing the case to the ACERWC is a way to attempt to ensure the court’s decision is respected and upheld. In addition, MRG will work with the judiciary, those who would bring cases, the police, prosecutors and others to make sure the law is implemented. MRG is now running workshops for lawyers and judges in Mauritania on prosecuting slave masters.

This was one of the five cases MRG strategically identified in Mauritania to build on the work being done by Anti-Slavery International. MRG worked diligently to obtain detailed information, asking the right questions and proposing different legal strategies to increase the legal expertise of the local lawyer. According to Mathewson, ‘They [MRG] have that familiarity with legal terms and cases that I never had. They would ask the right questions and make suggestions I wouldn’t have thought of on these cases.’

The media’s independence is severely limited. ‘I’m concerned there isn’t much investigative journalism in the country,’ says Barry. Slavery is rarely mentioned in the media, and as a result a large part of the population denies its existence and is unwilling to discuss it. ‘I don’t know whether they don’t speak out because they’re afraid to or they don’t speak out because they don’t want to or a bit of both,’ says Claridge. When people are willing to talk about it there are drastic differences in their opinions. ‘Usually you have really strong reactions that are split. Some people laugh at your face because they say it doesn’t exist, and say “Are you crazy? Have you seen any slaves?” Then you have people who know someone who was or who still is in slavery and they are very grateful,’ says Tremeau.

MRG and its partners have shone a light on this taboo even if they have not vanquished it. Says Mathewson, ‘I think the profile of the issue has massively increased. I think MRG has certainly played a contributing role. What the international NGOs, like MRG, can do is just lend this huge legitimacy to what they [the Haratine community] are saying. We also go to Mauritania and this is what we’re seeing: they have much better access to international fora, like the UN in Geneva.’ Haratine women (Haratine means former slave) spoke at a Féministe du Monde event and at the Human Rights Council.

Several special rapporteurs have visited Mauritania and reported back to the UN. ‘It’s good that we have several visits in a row, because then we can do follow-up from one visit to another and also it keeps the issue of Mauritania alive at the UN. It gives more opportunity to talk about Mauritania, to give visibility to the issue,’ says Glenn Payot, MRG’s UN advocacy consultant.

This has led to an increased international awareness of the Haratine women. Says Tremeau, ‘Before [MRG’s work in Mauritania] very few people knew about slavery in Mauritania and now when you have meetings with NGOs they all seem to know about the issue of slavery. The work of MRG and Anti-Slavery International has really shed a light on this huge human rights violation that, in my opinion, doesn’t happen in other countries.’ This international outreach was facilitated through capacity-building for local partners, AFCF (Association Femmes Chefs de Familles) and SOS Esclaves, so they could do this advocacy.

There were several advocacy training workshops to teach these women their rights, allowing them to sensitize more Haratine women, claim their rights and gain confidence to fight the discrimination they face. Many of the participants did not know they possessed these rights previously because of their lack of education and literacy. After these workshops they were able to reach out to other Haratine women. Says Salimata Lam, national coordinator at SOS Esclaves, ‘They have been responsible for raising awareness among communities, especially women, in their neighbourhoods every month about the discrimination faced by Haratine women, speaking, explaining the poverty and exclusion they suffer, and establishing strategies to combat this exclusion, such as the means to achieve empowerment, schooling of children that can be a factor of change in families.’

This active network of nearly 100 Haratine women was set up as part of an MRG and Anti- Slavery International programme which has now ended, running alongside the legal work. Despite the fact that the programme ended in 2015, the network is still vocal in promoting and defending Haratine women’s rights. Lam is proud of the dynamic role the Haratine women have played. ‘This project was theirs. They took it. They led it from one end to the other. In each activity they were in the foreground as in the radio programmes, the awareness-raising they did the door-to-door, in the meetings they expressed themselves; they were also at the forefront in the contact with decision-makers. They felt more concerned than anyone else.’ They even engaged in national advocacy campaigns and spoke during government meetings.

She says that whenever Haratine women can, they exchange important information. Everyone involved said there was a drastic change in female leadership, which is restricted in a male- dominated society. Most of the civil society organizations are managed by men. Aminetou Moctar Ely, President of L’Association des Femmes Chefs de Famille (AFCF), says, ‘Improving women’s leadership knowledge and how they can become leaders in a slave society is the most effective way to combat stereotypes.’ Adds the external evaluator, ‘the project played a key role in promoting the rights of this vulnerable community and successfully emphasized female leadership.’


The practice of slavery in Mauritania is becoming more visible internationally as well as in Mauritania thanks to the strategic litigation and well-promoted advocacy. Says Salimata, ‘This project has highlighted a taboo even if it has not erased it. A large number of Haratine women no longer hesitate to say that they are Haratines.’