Mauritania was the last country to officially abolish slavery in 1981, and slavery was only recognized as a criminal offense in 2007–almost 150 years after Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in the US. Despite the 2007 law, an estimated 10 to 20 percent of the 3.4 million Mauritanians still live in a state of slavery today, and only one person has been successfully prosecuted for slavery in Mauritania, a meager success for the victims and all those fighting for the abolition of slavery.
How is it possible that between 340,000 and 680,000 Mauritanians are still modern day slaves? For the first time, a journalist, John Sutter, was able to enter Mauritania and directly report the accounts of slaves and of former owners.
He recounts the story of Moulkheir Mint Yarba, a young woman who, as a slave’s child, automatically became a slave herself. After being separated from her parents at an early age to live with her master, she lived with sheep and camels during her childhood. After reaching puberty, she was repeatedly raped by her master. She told CNN reporter Shutter that “All of [her] children were born into slavery. And all of her children were the result of rape by her master.”
But Moulkheir resigned herself to her condition, she “couldn’t see beyond her small, enslaved world,” until the day her owner killed her baby. It happened while she was herding sheep. As she was returning from the desert, she came back to a haunting vision: her newborn daughter was left by her owner to die in the desert sun. The master wanted to punish her for bearing a child–his child. He said she “would work faster without the child on her back.”
This case is far from being an isolated incident. A 2012 United Nations survey estimated that “for every 100,000 live births in the country, 510 women die from pregnancy, with significant disparities between the death rates of Black slaves and Arab owners. An even greater concern is that due to female slaves being forced to have children with their owners, an estimated 71.3 births per 1,000 live births are adolescents who suffer extreme mental and physical abuse.”
Slavery in Mauritania is not just physical, it is not only about shackles and chains; it is also psychological. Slavery is so highly embedded in mentalities that it has become the normative state of mind for most Mauritanians. Slaves are led to believe that the state of slavery in which they evolve is “normal.” A leader of an abolitionist group told Shutter that “the multigenerational slave, the slave descending from many generations, he is a slave even in his own head. And he is totally submissive. He is ready to sacrifice himself, even, for his own master” for he believes he will go to heaven if he serves his owner well.
Mauritanian slavery is “the slavery American plantation owners dreamed of”. Shutter’s shocking documentary effectively shows the true state of slavery in Mauritania, interviewing actual slaves and former slave owners. Although the abolitionist movement’s influence is increasing abroad, Mauritania’s situation on slavery is widely unknown. The subject is so taboo that Mauritanian officials deny the very existence of slavery in their country. Abolitionists have told Shutter that some have been captured and tortured by government officials so that they wouldn’t speak out.
Mauritania is a developing country. The life expectancy is 57 years old, but great disparities exist between slaves and owners. A slave’s health comes last, and some have never been to the doctor. But slaves stay with their owners despite their evident exploitation and maltreatment. Indeed, for many, freedom means starvation, and many of those who escape end up returning to their homes because they cannot afford a life on their own.
– Lauren Yeh