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

Africa | Mauritania |

Duration: 1 July 2018 – 1 July 2022

Country: Mauritania


What is this programme about?

This programme aims to help combat descent-based slavery in Mauritania. It also aims to assist the reintegration of victims of these slavery practices, as part of wider efforts to address their prevalence across the region.

Both descent-based slavery and forced child begging, particularly by residential students in Quranic schools, are regional problems which affect substantial numbers of people in many West African countries, including the four targeted by this project.

The key objectives are to:

  • Achieve reintegration and social & economic empowerment for former descent-based slaves;
  • Strengthen the legal policies and systems that identify and protect those who are vulnerable to slavery;
  • Combat the practice of forced begging by religious students.

Why are we delivering this programme?

Although this programme is active in Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria and Senegal, MRG works particularly in Mauritania, whilst other partners focus on the other targeted countries.

Slavery based on descent remains widespread in Mauritania, where many thousands of people are living under the direct control of their masters. They are treated as property and receive no pay for their work. Men primarily herd cattle or work on their masters’ farmland, while women are mostly engaged in domestic work, carrying and nursing the master’s children and often shepherding small herds of animals. Girls and boys start work for their masters at a very young age. Their domestic duties include drawing water from wells, collecting firewood, cooking, washing clothes, cleaning, caring for the children of their master, and setting up and moving tents. People in slavery face verbal and physical abuse; girls and women are subjected to sexual abuse. The children of slaves are also considered the masters’ property and, like other slaves, can be rented out, loaned, given as gifts in marriage or inherited by the masters’ children.

However, it is very difficult to know how many people currently live under these conditions. Slavery practices are mostly shrouded in secrecy and taboo; and only a tiny minority of the people suffering this form of slavery run away.  Most victims remain in slavery all their lives and their circumstances are seldom recorded or monitored. Slaves are told that their condition is divinely ordained, and that they will only go to Paradise if they obey their masters. People who have escaped are usually deeply traumatized, with little concept of choice; despite having made the brave decision to escape, they are unused to independence and life beyond slavery is extremely difficult for them.

Ending and preventing slavery in Mauritania requires assisting people out of slavery and helping them to achieve full socio-economic independence; the development and enforcement of a strong legal framework, to send a clear message that slavery practices are unacceptable and perpetrators will be punished; strong scrutiny of the Mauritanian government and national dialogue on the issue of slavery, to maintain pressure on them to take more action (e.g. implementing policies and programs that support the rights of groups affected by slavery – such as facilitating access to education, land, resources, employment, and healthcare), and a strong anti-slavery movement led by people of slave descent themselves. A focus on women’s rights, to overcome the multitude of additional factors keeping women in slavery, is essential.

The governing elites have strong slave-owning connections and vested interests in maintaining the status quo, therefore ensuring that laws against slavery are enforced is a major challenge. There have been only three prosecutions since the introduction of the 2007 Slavery Act, despite Mauritania having one of the highest rates of slavery in the world. More anti-slavery activists have been jailed than slavery perpetrators.

Whilst a substantial number of the traditional slave caste, the Haratines, still live nowadays in slavery, a greater number of people of slave descent now live separately from their traditional masters, but continue to be subjected to iniquitous practices, such as paying tithes to former masters, and face systematic discrimination which result in structural poverty and high vulnerability to exploitation. Narrow and marginal economic opportunities, socio-cultural stratification and the harsh environment combine to limit the ability of the Haratines to achieve safe, secure livelihoods which are independent of exploitative relationships controlled by traditional masters. In this respect, the situation of the Haratines is similar to that facing people of slave descent in Niger.

What are we doing?

In Mauritania, we:

  1. Provide 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;
  2. Provide socioeconomic support to current and former slaves by undertaking a detailed analyses and developing a revised and refined economic empowerment strategy;
  3. Strengthen legal frameworks to eradicate slavery by retrospectively reviewing legal work conducted in relation to slavery issues in Mauritania and organising community exchange and legal strategy workshops for relevant stakeholders;
  4. Advocate to improve States’ responsiveness to 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 are our partners?

Our partners are:

  • Anti-Slavery International (ASI): 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. Today they remain passionately committed to the global elimination of all forms of slavery and to secure the rights and freedom of the estimated 40 million people living in slavery worldwide. Their work directly supports people affected by slavery to claim their rights, seek compensation and take control of their lives. They also use our unique experience, specialist knowledge and expertise gained from years of working with local partner organizations in over 20 countries worldwide as a platform for national and international advocacy, research and policy-level change.
  • Association des Femmes chefs de famille (AFCF): The Association des Femmes chefs de famille is a non-governmental organization supporting women in remote regions of Mauritania, including Haratine women. They also work on prevention of violations against women and girls.
  • SOS-Esclaves: SOS-Esclaves is the longest-established anti-slavery organization in Mauritania. Created in 1995 by leading figures of the earlier El Hor movement, SOS-Esclaves 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. SOS-Esclaves provides an effective structure for the identification and support of people emerging from slavery and has assisted hundreds of people in their emancipation. SOS-Esclaves has also developed an international reputation through years of raising awareness on the situation in Mauritania in diverse public arenas, from mainstream media to UN hearings.

Who is funding this programme?

This programme is funded by the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor and co-financed by the Delegation of the European Union in Mauritania.

Photo: Group picture of our partners SOS-Esclaves, AFCF and Forum des Organisations Nationales de Droits Humains (FONADH), Mauritania, January 2020. Under our Advocacy activities, we jointly work on the shadow report on the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities to include a minority and slavery angle, and the intersectionality of discriminations. Credit: Julie Barriere / MRG.

European flagThis content represents the views of Minority Rights Group only and is its sole responsibility. The European Union does not accept any responsibility for use that may be made of the information it contains.

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