Anti-slavery Efforts in Mauritania
Mauritania, described in a CNN documentary as “Slavery’s Last Stronghold,” was the last country in the world to formally abolish slavery. Arrests for protesting slavery and lax punitive practices have shown Mauritania’s long list of subsequent anti-slavery legislation to be merely lip service. Still, recent attention and a growing frequency of successful prosecutions hint at incremental progress and intersectional anti-slavery efforts in Mauritania.

The Situation

Since outlawing slavery in 1981, Mauritanian officials have publicly denied any presence of the practice in their borders. In spite of these claims, data that independent observers collected shows that slavery is still prevalent: the Global Slavery Index (G.S.I.) estimates that 90,000 Mauritanians live in modern slavery, a figure likely lower than reality because the government obstructs all efforts to study the practice.

Mauritania ranks sixth on the G.S.I’s Prevalence Index, behind North Korea, Eritrea, Burundi, the Central African Republic and Afghanistan. Other estimates, from local sources, claim that as much as 20% of the population lives in slavery.

Because the Mauritanian government has categorically denied the existence of slavery, efforts to measure or sanction the practice have made slow progress. Major sites like the Washington Post claim that there are no reliable statistics on how many people are enslaved due to government obstruction and cultural norms that make measurement difficult. In fact, Mauritania’s census does not count enslaved people. Slavery did not receive criminalization until 2015, and Mauritanian courts have largely neglected to prosecute individuals accused of enslavement.

SOS-Esclaves and Anti-Slavery International

Still, anti-slavery efforts in Mauritania have seen small victories of varying impact. SOS-Esclaves, joined by Anti-Slavery International, filed a successful lawsuit in 2016 that served two former slave masters a five-year prison sentence and forced them to pay significant compensation to two victims. They won a similar conviction in November 2019, but the defendants appealed their sentence and remain free. The most recent win came on July 9, 2020, when courts served two former slave masters 10 and 15-year sentences and ordered the state to assist them in attaining citizenship. Because a lack of citizenship is one of the greatest obstacles to former slaves’ self-sufficiency, NGOs have touted this latest ruling as a significant victory.

The increasing frequency of these legal wins suggests incremental but steady progress in anti-slavery efforts in Mauritania. Other wins highlight the intersectionality of the issue. Alongside the first two successful convictions in 2016, successful appeals downgraded the charges of two anti-slavery activists who peacefully protested slavery, allowing them to walk free. According to the think tank Freedom House, convictions like these are common obstructive tactics that the government uses. Mauritanian courts frequently convict individuals for activism and inhibit a free press: “journalists risk arrest for reporting on sensitive topics,” and the government “continues to arrest antislavery and antidiscrimination activists.”

The Challenges

Non-governmental organizations’ efforts to stop slavery are beholden to a political system that actively opposes their cause. In turn, Mauritania’s government has resisted international pressure to reform. In January 2019, the United States terminated its trade agreement with Mauritania, citing forced labor practices and government retaliation against peaceful activism.

Further, the Sahara Desert covers 90% of Mauritania’s territory, making only 0.2% of Mauritanian land farmable. In Mauritania’s southern deserts, slavery and poverty deeply intertwine. Masters allow many enslaved families to live and farm on their own but the families have to give up a portion of their harvest each time their masters visit. When people manage to escape, they often gather in desert villages called adwaba where food and water are scarce, and conditions of poverty mirror those of their previous lives. The region’s harsh climate and lack of resources make it extremely difficult to flee abuse or find better circumstances.

Anti-slavery efforts in Mauritania are also battling against ingrained racial distinctions. A majority of slaves are the descendants of dark-skinned people who lighter-skinned Arab Berbers captured centuries before. In interviews, slaves claim that they lack representation in a government filled with lighter-skinned Mauritanians.

Ways to Abolish Slavery in Mauritania

Slavery in Mauritania deeply ties to the country’s cultural, political and geographic roots. The makers of “Slavery’s Last Stronghold” argue that substantively abolishing slavery in Mauritania means addressing the deep poverty that many dark-skinned Mauritanians face. In one interview they conducted, a former slave who had suffered beating and rape by her master nonetheless described him as a benevolent relative because “he also made sure she was fed in a country where many die of hunger.”

The approach that they and local anti-slavery organizations advocate addresses not only slavery but also the issues at its roots: poverty, famine, lack of citizenship or legal rights, obstructions of justice and persecution of activists. Further, slavery rests at the intersection of race, gender, poverty and geography in Mauritania. Successfully prosecuting slave masters brings about slow and incremental progress that inconsistent rulings, which the African Union Court condemned in 2018, still undermine. Anti-slavery efforts in Mauritania encompass improvements in criminalization, but they also extend the other areas mentioned. All they are missing is unity and resources.

– Skye Jacobs
Photo: Flickr

Leblouh in MauritaniaThe Islamic Republic of Mauritania is a West African nation with a population of more than 4 million people. The country is a “deeply patriarchal society” in which women and girls are taught that they are inferior to men and must please men in order to have a fulfilling life. One manifestation of this culture is the standard of beauty for women, which emphasizes obesity as a sign of wealth, status and desirability. The importance of achieving this beauty standard has resulted in the practice of leblouh, or the force-feeding of girls as young as five until they become obese. The practice of leblouh in Mauritania has serious health effects, but women are fighting against it. Here are five facts about leblouh in Mauritania.

5 Facts About Leblouh in Mauritania

  1. Force-feeding is a relatively common phenomenon: Nearly one out of five women in Mauritania have been force-fed. Leblouh is much more prevalent in rural areas, where traditions and customs are practiced more strictly. A 2007 study found that 75% of rural women had experienced leblouh in Mauritania. At the same time, less than 10% of women and girls in cities and urban areas had experienced force-feeding.
  2. Leblouh has severe consequences on the health and safety of women. During two months at a feeding camp, girls must consume up to 16,000 calories of meat, milk, grains and oils per day. Refusal to eat often results in physical repercussions. Of women in these camps, 60% reported physical punishments like beating. More than a quarter had their fingers broken as punishment. However, the health effects of obesity are a punishment on their own. Overweight women risk conditions like cancer, kidney failure, heart disease, diabetes and sleep apnea. They also often face harmful psychological effects as well as a short life expectancy. Additionally, obesity puts women at risk for complications during pregnancy and childbirth.
  3. The Mauritanian government is working to combat obesity. It started a media campaign encouraging weight loss and healthier living habits in 2003. Doctors and experts throughout the country supported the campaign, which emphasized the health effects of obesity. However, the lack of media access in rural areas made it hard to communicate these messages to rural communities, where leblouh is more common. Only one-quarter of Mauritanian women watch TV. Additionally, just 27% of women listen to the radio on a weekly basis, and 11% read newspapers. This made it difficult for the government’s campaign to reach its intended audience.
  4. Women-only gyms have opened to encourage weight loss and healthier living habits among Mauritanian women. The first women-only gym opened in the capital city of Nouakchott. As of 2011, it had 300 members. Women joined the gym for various reasons, including doctors’ orders, self-image and the infiltration of Western culture and its emphasis on thinness.
  5. Women-led NGOs have been founded to fight against the practice of leblouh and advocate for women’s empowerment throughout Mauritania. One such organization is Espoire. The leader of Espoire is Fatma Sidi Mohamed, who experienced force-feeding as a child. The organization aims to provide women with more opportunities to earn an income. Mohamed believes that if women can earn their own incomes, they will be less likely to pull their daughters out of school in order to “fatten them up for early marriage.” Espoire teaches women to read, provides classes on health and grants microcredit to women in Nouakchott. This all has the end goal of encouraging women to join the workforce and live healthier lives.

As these five facts about leblouh in Mauritania demonstrate, force-feeding is a widespread and serious issue. The cultural emphasis on obesity poses severe threats to women’s health and social wellbeing. However, this culture seems to be changing in favor of healthier lifestyles, especially in cities.

Sydney Leiter
Photo: Flickr

healthcare in mauritaniaThe Islamic Republic of Mauritania is a vast desert country with a significant nomadic population. These facets of Mauritania’s geography present challenges for creating healthcare infrastructure. In particular, physical distance and large rural populations make distributing care a massive undertaking. Accordingly, there are only 0.19 practicing physicians per 1,000 people in Mauritania. Here are five facts about healthcare in Mauritania.

5 Facts About Healthcare in Mauritania

  1. A lack of proper infrastructure devastates public health in rural, vulnerable regions. Problems stemming from poor sanitation and a lack of clean water plague Mauritania. Many areas of Mauritania go completely without consistent water sources due to geographic barriers. Overall, the capital city of Nouakchott is the only region with adequate water supply and treatment. This lack of water leads to serious consequences for healthcare in Mauritania. According to the World Health Organization, 2,150 Mauritanians die from diarrheal disease per year. Ninety percent of these deaths are linked to a lack of sanitation and insufficient access to clean water. In addition, droughts and desertification are preventing rural populations from accessing water at all. This is yet another challenge to improving healthcare in Mauritania.
  2. Many political barriers inhibit attempts to improve healthcare in Mauritania. The country suffers from a shortage of doctors and treatment facilities in rural areas of the country. While there are potential avenues for funding expansion, the Mauritanian government tends to keep infrastructure projects centralized to the capital region. Although the capital is the largest city and presents the most promise for economic growth, this neglects rural citizens. For example, the national insurance program prioritizes a portion of the urban population, as it only covers government officials and those who are formally employed. Poverty-stricken people are further disadvantaged by the astronomical cost of healthcare without any insurance. Thankfully, groups like the Institute of Tropical Medicine are working to provide a concerted effort to expand healthcare in Mauritania.
  3. Mauritania struggles with reproductive and neonatal care. According to the World Bank, Mauritania has a birthrate of 4.62. Combined, the birthrate and lack of adequate neonatal care lead to high infant and maternal mortality. However, the International Development Association is dedicating $23 million to expanding the reach and quality of maternal, neonatal and reproductive healthcare in Mauritania. The initiative also aims to combat childhood malnutrition by investing in further healthcare and nutrition services for children. These efforts, part of the Mauritania Health System Support project, aspire to alleviate issues in healthcare beyond the capital city. This will provide much-needed relief to rural and refugee populations.
  4. International aid is going toward healthcare in Mauritania. The International Development Association of the World Bank is providing funds to help local governments build sanitation and water treatment infrastructure. These funds will address the gross centralization of public utilities and expand access to water and sanitation services into rural areas. With tools to manage public services provided through the Decentralization and Productive Intermediate Cities Support project, localities will have the means to create a substantive foundation for healthcare in Mauritania.
  5. The Institute of Tropical Medicine is also promoting healthcare in Mauritania. In her 2018 article for the Institute of Tropical Medicine, public health expert Kirsten Accoe details how the ITM intends to establish a local health system team in the country. This team would tackle healthcare on the district level in conjunction with centralized efforts to improve healthcare. The initiative aims to create sustained quality care by increasing the retention of healthcare workers in each district, which has previously been an issue due to lack of funding, equipment and trained personnel. ITM’s effort can therefore allow more to people get the relief they deserve.

Improving healthcare in Mauritania is certainly a complex task. But the government and aid organizations can come together to cultivate a coordinated effort to improve infrastructure, assist healthcare professionals at the district level and expand the reach of care. In doing so, they will begin to create an equitable healthcare system and provide all Mauritanians with the care they deserve.

Olivia Bielskis
Photo: Flickr

Morroco - Western Sahara conflict
A relic of the Cold War, the Morocco-Western Sahara conflict remains frozen and mired in uncertainty. Nearing its 50th year, the clash has displaced and killed thousands over the years. Thankfully, some organizations have floated proposals to remedy this fight, although obtaining little success. Still, some humanitarian organizations are on the ground and working to improve the lives of those who desperately need it.

What is Western Sahara?

Western Sahara is the largest non-autonomous territory in the world. With an area of 266,000 square kilometers, Western Sahara is home to over 650,000 people. That’s roughly the size of Colorado, with a little more than a tenth of its population. Although rather poor, the desertic region contains significant phosphate deposits and rich fisheries off its coast. The arid climate over there prevents substantive agriculture, forcing Western Sahara to import much of its food. Life expectancy there is low, averaging only 64 years, and infant mortality is high, with 47.9 deaths per 1,000 children born.

The Dispute.

As colonial powers relinquished many of their claims, Spain decided to leave Western Sahara in the early 1970s — known then as the Spanish Sahara. The Spanish finally left the territory in 1975, as the tensions regarding the ownership of the region began heating up.

In 1974, the International Court of Justice had issued an advisory opinion finding that Morocco did not have a claim to the ownership of Western Sahara. This decision, which was mired in Cold War politics, was effectively ignored by Morocco. Shortly after the decision had been issued, more than 300,000 unarmed Moroccans marched into Western Sahara with copies of the Quran in what became known as the “Green March”. Then, Spain brokered a deal between Morocco and Mauritania, giving both countries part of Western Sahara and withdrawing from the region in late 1975.

Presence of the UN.

Peace, however, did not flourish. In 1979 Mauritania ceded its claim to Western Sahara, leaving Morocco as the sole ruler. Then, Algeria – Morocco’s neighbor and geopolitical rival – worked with the independence movement Polisario Front to oppose Moroccan rule, thereby starting a conflict that stretched for close to a decade and took the lives of nearly 14,000 people. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Polisario Front lost many of its backers, leaving the two sides in somewhat of a stalemate. 

The Morocco-Western Sahara conflict has been locked in a ceasefire since 1991 when the UN sent in peacekeepers to make sure violence was kept to a minimum. This mission, which was officially called the UN Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) was also intended to provide a forum through which Morocco and Western Sahara could reach an agreement on the region’s autonomy. Sadly, no agreement has been made and Western Sahara’s fate still remains in limbo.

What is Being Done?

Since then the living conditions in Western Sahara have deteriorated thanks to the war and to its arid landscape. More than 40,000 Sahrawi refugees who were displaced by the conflict now live in camps in Algeria. One camp in Tindouf – the site of the 1963 “Sand War” between Morocco and Algeria – has been in operation since the onset of the war. Deutsche Welle reported that the dry conditions limit agriculture and the availability of water there. Thankfully, some aid organizations have stepped up to supply the refugees with much-needed basics.

Early this year, Italy provided the World Food Programme with over $500,000 to provide monthly food rations. Other organizations have operated as forces for good in Western Sahara:

  • Oxfam responded to the COVID-19 pandemic by equipping 33 health clinics in the Tindouf camps.
  • UN peacekeepers constructed wells in Western Sahara, giving residents access to a vital resource.
  • Action on Armed Violence assisted Sahrawis in removing mines, cluster bombs and other un-detonated explosives. In total, 22,000 devices were cleared.
  • AOAV also gave micro-grants to over 200 people who had been injured by these remnants of war.

Future Perspectives.

In 2006, Morocco proposed the Autonomy Plan, whereby Western Sahara would be governed by Morocco and yet retain some sovereignty of its own. The UN Security Council endorsed the idea, as have several other countries. Morocco controls 80% of Western Sahara and most Sahrawis already live under Moroccan control. But this plan has so far stalled. In its own fashion, Morocco has improved life in Western Sahara for some people. In 2015, the General Confederation of Moroccan Enterprises announced a $609 million investment plan for Western Sahara.

Still, much remains to be done. Despair is still common among refugee camps and long-term solutions have yet to be realized. Therefore, organizations on the ground need to increase their assistance while other countries and international organizations need to revisit the Morocco-Western Sahara conflict with redoubled efforts. Perhaps this frozen conflict can eventually thaw into peace.

– Jonathan Helton

Photo: Flickr

Poverty in MauritaniaMauritania, a sizable northwest African desert country, was recently ranked 161 on the U.N.’s Human Development Index in terms of life expectancy, education and per capita income. It has a population of 4.4 million people, 42% of whom live below the poverty line. The country has an abundance of minerals and natural resources. However, recurring natural disasters and economic, social and educational disparities plague Mauritania with vulnerability. Despite this, the youthful population, alongside a generous NGO, has the potential to develop and overcome poverty in Mauritania.

Environment and Health

Following an early 2018 drought in Mauritania, an estimated 350,000 people were left food-insecure for up to five months. Changing weather patterns and prolonged water scarcity cause the country’s periodic droughts, a challenge already sustained by many Mauritanians. Soil erosion and deforestation are spreading desertification, a major threat to the Senegal River. This river is one of the country’s only available freshwater resources. As a result, 42% of the population does not have access to improved water sources, and 60% do not have access to improved sanitation facilities.

The resulting water contamination and inadequate sanitation levels have left Mauritanians at high risk for infectious diseases. The Journal of Tropical Medicine and Infectious Disease highlights a study conducted at Mauritania’s National Referral Hospital which found that 14% of children hospitalized for diarrhea between 2011 and 2014 had died. Continued consumption of highly contaminated water often causes diarrhea, as well as typhoid fever and hepatitis A.

Government and Economy

With its generous supply of gold, iron ore, oil and fish, Mauritania’s economy should, ostensibly, be blossoming. However, surrounding terrorist occupation and a lack of economic diversification prevent foreign investment and overall improvement.

Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb is a terrorist organization and al-Qaeda affiliate operating in the Sahara and Sahel regions. Due to the group’s holdings and criminal activity in the surrounding countries, including Mauritania, there is a low potential for the extractive industry in Mauritania. Therefore, foreign governments instead look elsewhere for precious natural resources and fine minerals.

Nearly 40% of Mauritania consists of agricultural land, which over half of the population depends on for food and income. Because the country’s periodic droughts often force the migration of farmers to cities, food insecurity occurs with farm-dependent people. In addition, disarray occurs in the economy.

Education

The prospects associated with a large youth population could mean a great change in Mauritania. However, things will only change as long as the education frequency and quality increases, particularly for young girls. Only 55% of children aged 6-11 attend school due to geographic dispersion, forced displacement and gender inequities. Females, with a literacy rate 20% lower than males, do not receive enough representation in the classroom. This disparity negatively affects the economy because educated girls lead to innovative entrepreneurship and economic growth.

The Good News

Action Against Hunger is a multinational organization, headquartered in France, Canada, Spain, the United Kingdom and the United States, intent on combating Mauritania’s imperfections and mitigating global poverty through implementing sustainable solutions and creating community prosperity. For nearly 40 years, long-term change has been Action Against Hunger’s endgame. This resolution is exemplified in the organization’s motto: “For a world free from hunger.”

The organization’s work in Mauritania began in 2007, but Action Against Hunger has served 43 countries around the world since its inception. The initial Mauritania vision was to manage malnutrition in order to mend healthcare and education limitations. However, the solution-oriented organization has since broadened its focus.

To improve community food security, Action Against Hunger issues micro-grants to support families recovering from natural disasters, provides seeds and tools to struggling farmers, teaches land preservation techniques and offers livestock and veterinary services.

To ensure improved sanitation facilities and defend against water contamination, the organization drills and decontaminates wells, distributes hygiene kits and builds hand-washing stations. It also encourages and trains community-based water committees for long-term water management.

To treat malnutrition, Action Against Hunger delivers therapeutic food for children and trains employees in healthcare centers on how to treat malnourished children and pregnant mothers.

To dismantle the connection between conflict and poverty in Mauritania, as well as the rest of the world, Action Against Hunger advocated for the U.N.’s adoption of Resolution 2417 which was unanimously passed in 2018. The resolution condemns warfare-induced starvation, forced displacement and humanitarian aid denial as violations of international human rights and humanitarian law. The resolution also increases the likelihood of foreign aid investment in Mauritania. It aims to block terror involvement and promote stable government in the world’s most conflict-cluttered countries.

Action Against Hunger’s collective efforts directly impacted 354,179 Mauritanians in 2018 alone with more projects and progress to come. However, the organization recognizes, especially in these uncertain times, that adaptability, innovation and strategic foresight are the best measures of success and will result in the greatest reduction of poverty in Mauritania.

– Natalie Clark
Photo: Flickr

Forbes ranked Nouakchott, the capital of Mauritania, the 20th dirtiest city as it lacks proper water management, which leads to famine and disease. Here are 10 facts about sanitation in Mauritania. 
Mauritania is the geographic and cultural bridge between North African Maghreb and Sub-Saharan Africa. The Islamic nation has a population of around 4 million people. Located in northwest Africa, the coastal country includes 90% desert land. Mauritania is infamous for being the last country to abolish slavery — in 1981 — and slaves still make up 4% to 10% of the population. Meanwhile, Forbes ranked Nouakchott, the capital of Mauritania, the 20th dirtiest city as it lacks proper water management, which leads to famine and disease. Here are 10 facts about sanitation in Mauritania. 

10 Facts About Sanitation in Mauritania

  1. According to WHO, the lack of water sanitation causes nearly 90% of the 2,150 deaths from diarrheal diseases in Mauritania each year. Stagnant water breeds malaria mosquitos, parasites and other contaminants. With over 16.6% of the population below the extreme poverty line, many Mauritanians cannot afford to acquire clean water or proper healthcare.
  2. According to the Africa Development Bank Group, 68% of Mauritanians have access to potable water. In 2008, only 49% of the population had access to potable water. In isolated desert villages, citizens must trek miles to reach the closest water source. Meanwhile, in the capital city of Nouakchott, people in poverty often purchase water from vendors who hauled the barrels from a water supply several kilometers away.
  3. WaterAid determined that in 2017, 1,048,500 Mauritanian children under the age of 17 lacked a proper household toilet. Because people cannot afford toilets and lack access to running water, Mauritanians rely on latrines. In 2010, the government of Mauritania halted funding towards latrines, further stalling progress toward sanitation. However, UNICEF’s Community-Led Total Sanitation (CLTS) initiative has improved 67% of latrines since 2009.
  4. As of June 12th, 2020, Mauritania logged 1,439 cases of the novel COVID-19. Although many facilities lack proper sanitation to handle the virus, the Mauritanian government enforced curfews, travel bans and shop closures. In hopes of preventing potential economic damage, the government also distributed food and exempted 174,707 households from paying electricity bills. Organizations like WHO and UNICEF responded to the situation by treating coronavirus patients and implementing sanitation facilities to contain the virus.
  5. In 2018, the Chinese company CTE subsidized $40.3 million toward a rainwater collection system for a new sanitary sewerage network in Nouakchott. Prior to the project, Nouakchott’s sewerage network served only 5% of the city’s households. Building better sewerage networks will allow Mauritania to bring running water to rural areas. Since the country is below sea level, sewerage networks can also help limit floods and stagnant water.
  6. The African Development Bank funded the National Integrated Rural Water Sector Project (PNISER) to install drinking water supply networks and solar pumping stations in rural Mauritania. The Ministry of Hydraulics and Sanitation is implementing the new networks in rural communities that lack water systems. Around 400,000 square meters of irrigated land will receive water availability, generating additional income for women and youth.
  7. World Vision initiated the WASH Mauritania program in 2016. It has provided three local villages with access to water, hygiene and sanitation resources. With funding from the U.S. and Germany, World Vision Mauritania “[rehabilitated] boreholes, water towers, water retention points, fountains and water network extension.” In the village of Maghtaa Sfeira, WASH benefited over 900 people and sponsored more than 200 children. As a result of this program, many women and children no longer have to seek unsanitary water holes or trek miles for water supplies.
  8. According to WaterAid, 60% of Mauritania’s schools lacked sanitation in 2016. When schools offer sanitation, not only can children practice good hygiene, but their school attendance increases.
  9. Because Mauritania is vulnerable to desertification, WHO partnered with the Mauritanian government in 2013 to ensure that schools, healthcare facilities and villages have proper water, sanitation and hygiene. WHO provided water basins, installed toilets and insured higher quality of food for schools. In addition, WHO equipped the country with six biomedical waste incinerators to dispose of hazardous substances. In one instance, transforming a Land Rover into a mobile water laboratory has enabled WHO to monitor the water quality of different villages.
  10. In 2020, the World Bank secured funding for the Water and Sanitation Sectoral project and the Mauritania Health System Support project. The Water and Sanitation Sectoral Project received an International Development Association (IDA) grant of $44 million to improve latrines, add hand-washing facilities and rehabilitate water systems. In the Hodh el Chargui region in eastern Mauritania, an additional $23 million IDA grant will increase the quality of reproductive, maternal, neonatal and child health and nutrition services. Together, these projects will benefit more than 473,000 people.

Improving sanitation in Mauritania can potentially have wide-reaching benefits — from raising incomes and boosting the national economy, to improving education and lowering mortality rates. It is imperative that the government and other organizations focus on providing sanitation resources to the people of Mauritania.

– Zoe Chao
Photo: Flickr

Fighting radicalization in Mauritania

The Mauritanian government, with the help of outside organizations, has been working to decrease radicalization in Mauritania since the early 2000s. While Islamic terrorist attacks have been effectively stopped, there are still concerns about the spread of extremist views throughout the nation as well as in the surrounding countries. Several Islamic extremist groups have bases in Mauritania, including Al-Qaeda. Fighting radicalization in Mauritania requires a multi-faceted approach that tackles the factors contributing to radicalization and proactively dissuades extremist views from being able to gain traction.

Factors Contributing to Radicalization

The common problems many impoverished countries face include high unemployment, food insecurity, violence and political turmoil, all of which cause great suffering. These issues can sometimes make individuals more likely to adopt extremist views.

In Mauritania, unemployment is high, particularly for the youth with approximately 18.6 percent of 15 to 24-year-olds unemployed. Combined with poverty and a disconnect from political and civic life, this creates a population of young people who feel disillusioned by the options available to them. These individuals may then look for alternative and sometimes extreme methods through which they can exhibit their frustrations.

A majority of the Islamic jihadists in Mauritania are middle or low-income people, the majority of whom are below the age of thirty. Underemployment and delinquency are two additional factors common in the experiences of these individuals.

Racism in Mauritania

Another contributing factor to radicalization in Mauritania is ethno-racial tension. Conflicts between Arab and black Africans go back as far as the 1960s with the government giving preference to the Arab population. For example, when Arab leaders gained control of the nation’s education system, they reformed the system according to their values and mostly excluded black Africans from administrative positions.

Black Africans are also excluded more generally from society. Even those who have assimilated to the Arab culture are more likely to be illiterate, viewed as second-class citizens and sometimes denied basic rights. In combination with the poverty that many black Africans face, these genuine grievances contribute to the appeal of extremist views.

Additionally, it is important to note that much of what Islamic extremists are protesting – authoritarianism, torture, corruption and Mauritania’s relationship with the West – are genuine grievances. While extremism is never tolerable, the presence of these significant problems will continue to create a context in which extremist ideas are considered attractive.

Fighting Radicalization in Mauritania

The government’s efforts to combat terrorism have included arrests, raids, strengthening border control, improving military and intelligence capabilities and cooperating with the United States. While this is an important part of reducing the threat of terrorism, it is also important to implement programs and policies intended to prevent radicalization in Mauritania.

In 2015, the Ministry of Youth and Sport and UNDP created the National Strategy for Youth and Sport to encourage youth participation in society as a method for preventing radicalization. A youth center in the city of Nouakchott began providing opportunities for young people to discuss the problems as well as their aspirations for the future. Young people also participate in educational programming that teaches them important skills for employment. Discussion forums hosted by the center help train young people to recognize and resist extremist rhetoric and give them the tools to engage in productive dialogue in their communities.

One high school student indicated that her goal is to become a surgeon, but without the support of the youth center, she wouldn’t be prepared for this level of education. Another student expressed the desire to become a teacher and noted that he was “struck by the ignorance that still exists in poor suburbs, and by the lack of teachers in rural areas.” His hope was to be able to help by teaching in those communities.

Another participant noted that being unemployed and religious, he had been “tempted in the past by extremist ideas because of intense frustration,” but the center steered him away from radicalization through training sessions and debates. Over time, he recognized that he had a place in society and began to feel less disillusioned. Centers like the one in Nouakchott are essential for preventing extremism amongst Mauritania’s youth by providing an opportunity to engage in dialogue as well as prepare for a successful future.

Moving Forward

UNDP is also working with the government to create other projects aimed at fighting radicalization in Mauritania. It is focused on tackling the root causes. Starting with the youth is important, but based on the contributions poverty and ethno-racial tensions play in promoting extremism, these issues also need to be addressed more fully in counter-terrorism efforts.

Moving forward, extremism needs to be more fully recognized as a product of poverty and inequality. Efforts to decrease radicalization in Mauritania, therefore, should focus on decreasing poverty more broadly as well as promoting human rights for all Mauritanians. Only through a multi-faceted approach that seeks to tackle the factors contributing to extremism in the nation will fighting radicalization in Mauritania become truly successful.

Sara Olk
Photo: Flickr

Top 10 Facts About Living Conditions in Mauritania
With potential in its iron, copper and fishing industries, the West African nation of Mauritania could see economic improvements in the coming years. However, the country remains crippled by a multidimensional crisis caused by food insecurity, a high rate of malnutrition, limited access to water, institutional barriers to educational opportunities and an existing system of slavery. Here are 10 facts about living conditions in Mauritania.

Top 10 Facts About Living Conditions in Mauritania

  1. Malnutrition. In Mauritania, climate-related effects on crops, such as droughts and inconsistent rains, have caused food shortages. Over 130,000 children, including nearly 32,000 children with severe acute malnutrition (SAM), and 31,000 pregnant and lactating women, will require nutritional care and treatment in 2019.
  2. Energy. In Mauritania, only 29 percent of the nation has access to electricity. However, the Mauritanian government has made it a priority to expand its electricity supply in a bid to reduce poverty. Efforts to increase access include encouraging investment into the renewable energy sector in order to stimulate the economy.
  3. Education. Children aged 6 to 14 are required to attend school in Mauritania but systematic barriers have prevented many students from getting the education they deserve. Mauritania’s civil registration process requires families to produce official paperwork for children to be admitted to primary schools, but such policies disproportionately affect low-income families who lack the necessary documents and have found replacing them to be an arduous process. Only 40 percent of children from the poorest households are registered compared with 85 percent of children from the wealthiest households. In addition, such social and ethnic barriers are known to discriminate against Mauritania’s Haratine (Hassaniya-speaking former slaves or descendants of slaves) or Afro-Mauritanian populations.
  4. Gender Equality. Mauritanian women and girls face many cultural and social battles. Grooming young women to take on the role of a wife and then forcing them to marry before the age of 18 is a common and accepted practice. In addition, freedom of choice remains elusive for girls in Mauritania. Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) is also a commonplace practice with a prevalence rate of 66 percent. However, data from UNICEF shows a change in attitude around FGM leading to tougher legislation.
  5. Right to Water. The only available water table is in Trarza (southwestern Mauritania). Leaky pipes in the impoverished areas of the city have contributed to an inadequate distribution system resulting in only 68 percent of the population having access to water. Still, this population is restricted to less than 50 liters per day per person. In rural areas, drinking water shortages are more recurrent. Efforts to increase access to drinking water remain strong in the West African country. With support from technical and financial partners and implementation of the necessary projects and programs, humanitarian groups believe the West African country can meet its goal of supplying water access to 100 percent of the population by the year 2020 with a 2030 deadline.
  6. Slavery. Mauritania was the last country to make slavery illegal in 1981, just 38 years ago. Still, thousands of people — mostly from the minority Haratine or Afro-Mauritanian groups — find themselves living as bonded laborers, domestic servants or child brides. It is estimated that up to 20 percent of the population is enslaved, forced to work on farms or in homes with no possibility of freedom, education or pay. Recently, two slave owners were jailed receiving the toughest sentence to date for slave owners at 10 and 20 years. Despite these historic sentences and the fact that Mauritania criminalized slavery in 2015, the Sahel country has jailed more anti-slavery activist than slave owners. The African Union has urged Mauritania to issue harsher sentences for this crime.
  7. Access to Health Care. Currently, the country is suffering from a poor health care system resulting in very high maternal mortality and infant mortality rates. In addition, only a small percentage of the population is covered by the national insurance scheme. Divisions in government and political agenda have made it coordination efforts challenging for the donors and NGOs on the ground.
  8. Infrastructure. Although Mauritania is 90 percent desert the economy relies heavily on agriculture as a main sector of the economy. However, the major agricultural industries: meat, milk and fish are being held back by a lack of processing facilities. It is hoped that increased investment in areas such as hydrocarbon development will help bolster agriculture in the country.
  9. WASH practices. In the capital city of Nouakchott, signs of improvement are palpable. For example, water basins have been installed and classroom instruction on proper handwashing and better hygiene practices have been implemented, benefiting more than 6,500 people. Improved conditions for students also means fewer absences from school.
  10. Medical Waste Disposal. Proper medical waste disposal in these regions are creating healthier environments. With the installation of six biomedical waste incinerators, health centers are reducing the health risks that are posed by exposure to infectious microorganisms found in medical waste. Moreover, proper medical waste management and disposal help protect the environment from hazardous substances allowing for soil, water and air to be used for growing food.

As these top 10 facts about living conditions in Mauritania show, the country faces an uphill battle as it continues to progress into a self-sustaining country. However, government initiatives along with support from international aid groups continue to tackle social and systematic barriers in order to change the status quo.

– Leroy Adams
Photo: Flickr

Sustainable Agriculture in Mauritania
Mauritania is a rather large country in western Africa that has abundant natural resources like iron, oil and natural gas. Unfortunately, water and arable land are not at the top of the list. Nearly two-thirds of the nation is desert. Despite the lack of water, nearly half of the nations 3.8 million people make a living from livestock and cereal grain farming. Sustainable agriculture in Mauritania is essential to put this land to its best use and help the rapidly urbanizing population economically.

Promoting Sustainable Agriculture in Mauritania

According to the FAO, the amount of food produced domestically in Mauritania each year only meets one-third of the country’s food needs, leaving the other 70 percent to be imported from other countries. The FAO has been working to increase crop output by promoting and supporting agriculture farming in Mauritania. One such program is the Integrated Production and Pest Managment Program (the IPPM) in Africa.

This program covers nine other countries in West Africa. Since its inception in 2001 as part of the United Nations new millennium programs, the program has reached over 180,000 farmers, 6,800 in Mauritania. In Mauritania, the IPPM program focuses on simple farming techniques to increase both the quantity and quality of the crop yield each year.

These techniques include teaching farmers how to chose the best seeds to plant along with the optimum distance to plant the seeds from one another. The program also educates farmers about the best use of fertilizers and pesticides. Overuse of these chemicals can pollute the already small water supply and harm the crops. The program also teaches good marketing practices to help with crop sales.

Programs Working With Government Support

It is not only outside actors that are promoting sustainable agriculture in Mauritania. The government has been helping as well. A report by the Guardian from 2012 explains the government’s new approach since 2011. The plan includes new irrigation techniques, the promotion of new crops, such as rice, and the training of college students in sustainable agriculture techniques through subsidies.

Data from the World Bank in 2013, showed that the program was slowly succeeding; however, too little water was still the biggest issue. The World Bank and the government of Mauritania are still working towards those goals by building off of the natural resources available. According to the CIA, a majority of the economy and foreign investment in Mauritania involves oil and minerals.

A Work In Progress

Data is not easy to find on the success of these programs after 2016. What can be noted, though, is that programs run by the FAO and other international organizations are still fighting for sustainable agriculture in Mauritania. They have been able to sustain using money from mining and oil that is coming in each year.

While these are certainly not the cleanest ways for a government to make money, it is a reliable way for the foreseeable future. The government has already proven that it is willing to spend this money on its people. Hopefully, the government will continue to invest in its people and sustainable agriculture in Mauritania.

Nick DeMarco
Photo: Flickr

Liberty in Mauritania

In the West African country of Mauritania, though slavery was abolished in 1981 and a 2007 law was passed that criminalizes owning a slave, much of the population remains in bondage.

The Global Slavery Index reported that there were up to 47,000 slaves remaining in Mauritania. The size of this human rights violation and recent crimes against activists warrant American attention and aid for those longing for liberty in Mauritania.

History of Slavery in Mauritania

Slavery has a long and storied history in Mauritania. As in other parts of the world, it is often based on skin color and ethnic background. Most enslaved people in Mauritania are darker skinned and Harantine/Afro-Mauritanian. This is especially relevant considering that the government is overwhelmingly run by the lighter skinned Arab-Berbers, under an administration that has done little to ease the plight of slaves.

Stories of Slaves

Even when Mauritania’s minority peoples live as freedmen, they tend to occupy lower positions in the social hierarchy than the Arab-Berbers. This colorist system is deeply ingrained throughout Mauritanian culture. One Harantine slave testified that her mother used to tell her every night that she must respect the masters because their caste is higher and they are considered to be the saints. Despite the horrors of slavery, ingrained biases often block the way to liberty in Mauritania.

Those who remain enslaved in Mauritania live in abhorrent conditions. Stories of cruelty and barbarism abound. Fatimatou, a former slave that was freed by the nongovernmental organization SOS Slaves, testifies: “I lost two babies to this family because they prevented me from taking care of my own children. I was forced to work when I had just given birth.” Aichetou, another former slave, escaped in 2010, assisted by her sister. The older sibling had escaped after witnessing her captor murder her child using hot coals.

Unfair System

Despite the frequency and brutality of these incidents, only five people have been punished in the past three years for practicing slavery. In comparison, at least 168 human rights activists that are fighting against slavery have been arrested in the past four years.

This institutional disregard for anti-slavery efforts has become apparent leading up to the country’s September elections. On August 7, former presidential candidate and human rights activist, Biram Dah Abeid, was arrested because of an “order from above.” Most likely, he has been detained because he and several colleagues planned to run for legislative positions. His vow to defeat the authoritarian President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz has made him a focus of much controversy and state persecution.  Throughout the most recent detainment, Biram Dah Abeid and other arrested opposition members have not been given access to a lawyer during the prosecution.

How Can People Help?

People around the world who feel sympathy for the plight of those seeking liberty in Mauritania have several ways in which they can assist.

  1. First, they can learn all they can about the subject and spread the word to their friends and family on social media.
  2. Second, they can donate to anti-slavery organizations like the Abolition Institute that uses the proceeds to rescue people from bondage.
  3. Finally, they can write a letter or email to the U.S. government to prevent the deportation of Mauritian asylum seekers. Amnesty International has warned that if deported, these people face the threat of slavery, torture and death. One of the easiest ways to contact influential people is through the Borgen Project, specifically through this link.

Only with the support of compassionate and aware citizens can enslaved victims find liberty in Mauritania.

– Lydia Cardwell
Photo: Flickr