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Freedom, rights and justice: Combatting descent-based slavery in Mauritania

Duration: 26 August 2016 – 30 June 2019

Country: Mauritania (Atar, Bassiknou, Nema, Nouakchott)

Communities: Haratines

What was this programme about? 

This programme aimed to help eradicate slavery in Mauritania and ensure the full integration of people emerging from slavery into mainstream society. We approached these twin imperatives through three mutually reinforcing strategies. We supported 310 people to achieve socio-economic independence and rights, including citizenship. Alongside our partners, we ensured that the authorities more rigorously identify and pursue the prosecution of slavery cases and compensate victims by strengthening the legal system and framework. We changed societal norms and attitudes towards slavery and its victims by developing the media’s ability to cover slavery issues and promote antislavery and anti-discrimination messages. 

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 very difficult to know how many people currently live under these conditions, as slavery practices are mostly shrouded in secrecy and taboo, though 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.  

Despite its high incidence in Mauritania, slavery hardly makes the headlines of mainstream media despite the best efforts of civil society to highlight cases. This can partly be explained by considering that: private media outlets were only authorized in 2011; independent journalists have faced repressive measures such as suspension or arrest; the independent media’s low level of resources and capacity; and the media’s limited relations with national anti-slavery CSOs.

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?

  • Held monthly workshops and awareness-raising sessions with community members, leaders and religious figures.
  • Organized monthly visits to slavery survivors to record their experiences and needs and share accounts with programme partners.
  • Provided socioeconomic support to 160 persons of slave descent through vocational training courses in hairdressing, catering, textile-dyeing and dressmaking. 
  • Provided grants to 90 people emerging from slavery in Atar, Bassiknou and Nema to help them start small businesses selling couscous, vegetables and rearing goats.
  • Offered four basic numeracy and literacy classes a week for 60 children to increase their chances of being able to transfer to the formal school system.
  • Conducted workshops with judges, prosecutors and clerks to investigate the handling of slavery allegations and issues such as unconscious bias, the need for impartiality, the inappropriateness of interviewing a victim of slavery in the same room as their former master, and how to protect witnesses and victims who appear before the courts. 
  • Held monthly meetings with national authorities to share information on the progress of slavery cases and ensure that anti-slavery legislation is being properly enforced.
  • Organized media training for 15 anti-slavery activists to successfully engage the media for awareness-raising and advocacy purposes.
  • Disbursed six $10,000 grants for anti-slavery communications projects to journalists and activists.

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.
  • 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 Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor of the United States.

Find out more

MRG has also worked on a programme addressing gender equality in Mauritania called Gender equality for Haratines and released the documentary ‘Esclaves et discriminées : l’émancipation des femmes Haratines’ which can be watched in French here.

Photo: Sarah Mathewson, former ASI Project Coordinator, and Elid Mohameden, SOS Lawyer, during a paralegal training in Nouakchott, Mauritania. Credit: MRG.