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Cultivating Routes to Freedom: Growing a Movement for Slavery Survivors

Duration: 1 August 2019 – 31 December 2022

What was this programme about?

This programme is a continuation of the ongoing collaboration between Minority Rights Group (MRG), Anti-Slavery International and SOS-Esclaves and the Association des Femmes Chefs de Famille aimed at eradicating slavery in Mauritania and ensuring the full integration of people emerging from slavery into the mainstream society. The initiative maintains its three-pronged strategic approach to these twin imperatives: developing and enforcing a strong legal framework targeting persistent slavery practices and their perpetrators; socioeconomically empowering victims of slavery and reintegrating them into society; and advocacy at local, national, regional and international levels to ensure the government of Mauritania takes tangible steps towards implementing national policies and programmes adopted in support of the rights of those affected by slavery.

MRG worked particularly in Mauritania, whilst other partners focused on the other targeted countries.

Why did we deliver this programme?

Mauritania has the one of most entrenched systems of slavery in the world with deep historical roots. Its Maure population consists of the light-skinned Beydans and Black Haratines. Beydans, who form the country’s elite and are dominant in the country’s government, military, businesses and resource ownership, historically raided and enslaved Haratines, who continue to suffer from persistent slavery practices, discrimination, marginalization and exclusion.

Mauritania is also home to other Black ethnic groups, such as Pulaar, Wolof and Soninke; these groups are known collectively as Black Mauritanians. While it is now rare, some are still subjected to descent-based slavery. Black Mauritanians also face discrimination and exclusion, and, like Haratines, have great difficulties gaining access to national identity and citizenship rights.

It is challenging to know how many people currently live under these conditions, as slavery practices are mostly shrouded in secrecy and taboo. However, Mauritanian antislavery organizations estimate that thousands of Haratines are still enslaved or living under some form of control by their former enslavers. Only a tiny minority of the people subjected to this form of slavery escape it. Most remain in slavery all their lives with their circumstances seldom recorded or monitored. People who have escaped are usually deeply traumatized; despite having made the brave decision to escape, they are unused to independence and life beyond slavery is extremely difficult.

Haratines still living under the direct control of their enslavers are treated as property and receive no pay. They can be rented out, loaned, given as gifts in marriage or inherited by the masters’ children. Men primarily herd cattle or work on their enslavers’ farmland while women are mostly engaged in domestic work or shepherding small herds of animals. Children start working for their enslavers at a very young age. Enslaved people are frequently subjected to verbal and physical abuse. Women and girls particularly are vulnerable to sexual abuse.

People of slave descent who now live separately from their enslavers continue to be subjected to iniquitous practices, such as paying tithes to former enslavers and face systematic discrimination which results in structural poverty and high vulnerability to exploitation. Narrow and marginal economic opportunities, socio-cultural stratification and Mauritania’s harsh natural environment combine to limit the ability of the Haratines to achieve safe, secure livelihoods which are independent of exploitative relationships controlled by traditional masters.

Since the official abolition of slavery in Mauritania in 1981, anti-slavery laws and measures have been put in place to ensure not only the condemnation of enslavers but also former slaves’ economic reinsertion. Despite clear evidence that these laws have never been fully and properly implemented in practice, the Mauritanian authorities often claim that slavery no longer exists in the country. The governing elites have strong slave-owning connections and vested interests in maintaining the status quo.

What did we do?

  • Provided effective support to slavery-affected communities through community awareness-raising and outreach meetings, bi-monthly support visits to people emerging from slavery, follow-up with authorities on new slavery cases identified through these visits and regional monitoring visits.
  • Provided socioeconomic support to current and former slaves by undertaking detailed analyses and developing a revised and refined economic empowerment strategy.
  • Strengthened legal frameworks to eradicate slavery by retrospectively reviewing legal work conducted concerning slavery issues in Mauritania and organizing community exchange and legal strategy workshops for relevant stakeholders.
  • Advocated to improve States’ responsiveness to the needs of those vulnerable to slavery by organising advocacy meetings with local and national authorities, international organizations and UN rights mechanisms and by collaboratively developing submissions to UN human rights mechanisms based on community input.

Who were our partners?

Anti-Slavery International (ASI) 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.

Association des Femmes Chefs de Famille (AFCF) is a non-governmental organization founded in 19991 which supports women in remote regions of Mauritania, including Haratine women. They also work on the prevention of violations against women and girls.

SOS-Esclaves (SOS) 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.

Who funded this programme?

This programme was supported by the European Union, the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor of the United States and the United Nations Voluntary Fund on Contemporary Forms of Slavery.

What did the external evaluation say?

The programme was very relevant to the reality of the beneficiaries and matched very well the political situation in Mauritania in recent years, particularly following the adoption of the new laws criminalizing slavery and addressing discrimination. The assistance to the partners on the ground was very timely as their organizational capacities became increasingly constrained.

The legal framework has been strengthened by training partners and paralegals in data management and lawyers and law students on minority and human rights, by organizing strategic studies and community meetings on litigation and by advocating at the national, regional and international levels. The dynamism of the ‘focal points’ and awareness networks set up by SOS-Esclaves has been reinvigorated, enabling our partner to organize monthly tours to raise awareness and collect information, which has shown a reduction in the strength of discrimination targeted at people emerging from slavery.

A small number of people have been released and many more cases are pending before competent courts. The psychological and socioeconomic support proved essential in preparing and motivating people coming out of slavery.

The evaluators’ recommendations included that MRG and partners continue the same activities, with a longer duration, even if it means reducing the types of activities; organising a census, as exhaustive as possible, for the people still subjected to slavery; and promoting awareness-raising and training activities aimed at other categories of citizens, in particular, those who are still under the influence of slavery ideology.

Click here to read the evaluation report of this programme in English, Arabic or French.

Find out more

The programme incorporates learning from both successful and less impactful activities from previous programmes in Mauritania: Creating a favourable environment to help eradicate slavery; Freedom, rights and justice: Combatting descent-based slavery; Gender equality for Haratines, and regular feedback from beneficiaries and stakeholder groups.

Photo: Group picture of our partners SOS-Esclaves, AFCF and Forum des Organisations Nationales de Droits Humains (FONADH), Mauritania, January 2020. Credit: Julie Barrière / MRG.

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