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Cultivating Routes to Freedom: Growing a Movement for Slavery Survivors 

Duration: 7 March 2022 – 29 September 2024

Country: Mauritania, Niger

Communities: Survivors of slavery and the descendants of slaves in both urban and peri-urban settlements in Mauritania, six communities of slave descent in Tahoua in Niger

What is this programme about?

This programme will provide people affected by slavery with direct support to improve their legal and socio-economic circumstances, while aiming to bring about systemic change to the structures which prevent their full integration into mainstream society. It will also strengthen the anti-slavery movement in both countries by including survivors of slavery in decision-making roles, building the organizational capacity of our partners, sharing best practice and leveraging support for survivors from a wide network of relevant actors.

It is a new phase of decades of long-term work aimed at eradicating slavery in Niger and Mauritania. It incorporates learning from previous programmes: Cultivating Routes to Freedom: Growing a Movement for Slavery Survivors; Creating a favourable environment to help eradicate slavery; Freedom, rights and justice: Combatting descent-based slavery; Gender equality for Haratines; as well as feedback from beneficiaries and stakeholder groups.

Why are we delivering this programme?

In the Sahel, the eradication of descent-based slavery requires the full recognition of the rights and needs of slavery-affected populations. The low social status of former slaves and challenges in gaining citizenship rights and recognition place serious limits on their ability to live safe and independent lives. They also have limited access to justice to pursue their rights and entitlements, and when then they do seek justice, their rights are rarely enforced. Their social exclusion means that the enforcement of anti-slavery laws is not a subject of public concern.

Political sensitivities around descent-based slavery, particularly in Mauritania, mean that many stakeholders such as UN agencies avoid addressing such issues in their programming. Our work to date clearly demonstrates that while escaping slavery may end the immediate context of exploitation and abuse, it does not guarantee social and economic integration, nor does it afford the rights and status to prevent re-enslavement. Therefore, vulnerability remains acute and slavery eradication programmes must facilitate survivors’ transitions to independent lives and enable their integration into socio-economic and political spheres.

Most traditionally enslaved people in Niger have cut ties with their enslavers and established their own communities away from them. In the Sahel’s precarious economic environment, slavery is enforced by a lack of choice, and so every small benefit gained from communal cohesion and peer support is of immense importance in enabling and sustaining liberation. These communities tend to function in isolation from mainstream society, where they still suffer entrenched forms of discrimination and marginalization. Community members remain socially perceived as ‘slaves’ and consequently struggle to sustain independent lives. The risk of destitution is ever-present, compounded by regional food and water scarcity, which leaves them vulnerable to re-enslavement.

Descent-based slavery remains widespread in Mauritania, where many thousands of people continue to live under the direct control of enslavers and face a lifetime of forced labour and abuse. Data on the exact prevalence is very limited. Slavery is shrouded in denial; most victims remain with their enslavers all their lives and their circumstances are seldom documented. People who escape are usually deeply traumatized; despite summoning the courage to escape, they are unused to independence and life outside slavery is extremely difficult to sustain, particularly in the absence of meaningful state support, or social and community networks. The governing elites have strong vested interests in maintaining the status quo, making enforcement of anti-slavery laws and policies a major challenge. Consequently, the need to address the systemic barriers to emancipation is acute in Mauritania.

What are we doing?

  • Supporting slavery-affected community members to understand and claim their rights, by providing legal advice across a range of restitution, rights and rehabilitation issues in cooperation with local authorities and officials.
  • Pursuing legal cases that help to advance accountability and the rule of law in the context of descent-based slavery crimes.
  • Providing socioeconomic support to emerging survivors of slavery to secure alternative livelihoods through microcredit initiatives, vocational training and access to income-generating opportunities and skills.
  • Organizing community dialogue forums to raise awareness of the needs of communities of slave descent, and to facilitate connection with locally available social services and vocational training opportunities.
  • Establishing an emergency support fund to provide immediate support to individuals escaping slavery, for costs such as emergency medical attention, travel to be reunified with family members and short-term survival support.
  • Delivering national advocacy workshops to strengthen understandings of how advocacy can lead to the policy and legislative changes necessary to enable and sustain change in practice.
  • Organizing experience and expertise exchange workshops for CSO representatives fighting slavery from Mauritania and Niger.
  • Engaging academics, journalists and civil society actors on anti-slavery developments, and encouraging them to use their platforms to raise greater awareness of the issues facing slavery-affected populations.

Who are our partners?

Anti-Slavery International is the world’s oldest human rights organization, founded in 1839 as part of the original movement to abolish the transatlantic slave trade. Their work directly supports people affected by slavery to claim their rights, seek compensation and take control of their lives. They also conduct national and international advocacy, research and policy-level change.

SOS-Esclaves is the longest-established anti-slavery organization in Mauritania created in 1995 by leading figures of the earlier El Hor movement. It has over 2,000 grassroots members and ‘focal points’ in each region and most towns of Mauritania as well as regional offices in Atar, Nema and Bassiknou where slavery is particularly prevalent.

Timidria, the Association for the Defence of Human Rights and Development is a non-governmental organisation based in Niger founded in 1991. It works to fight against slavery and all forms of discrimination, and for the overall promotion of human rights in Niger.

Who is funding this programme?

This programme is supported by the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor of the United States.

MRG alongside partners SOS-Esclaves and Timidria during the second good practice exchange in Niger, February 2023. Courtesy of TIMIDRIA.