For most of us, the concept of slavery is an abstract reference to a primitive and barbaric process, a blight on our nations’ histories and also, firmly in the past. A devastating report by CNN shows that in one country, the practice is still alive and well.

Mauritania is a poor Muslim country on the West coast of Africa. Largely ignored by the international community, it has also managed to uphold slavery, not officially abolishing it until 2007 – more than one hundred years after Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves of the United States. Even so, only one case of slave ownership has been successfully prosecuted in a country teeming with slave owners. Estimates of what percentage of the population is enslaved run as high as 18% – near 3.5 million people.

The term ‘slavery’ is not applied lightly. These people are made to work for one master, doing hard manual labour for no wages. They are often mistreated, denied healthcare, education, the right to own property, clothing, proper food or basic rights. A woman CNN interviewed, Moulkheir Mint Yarba, was repeatedly raped and one of her infant children left to die and be eaten by ants when she was working in the field. She was not allowed to give her baby a proper burial.

Slavery persists because of an ingrained caste system, in which family ancestry determines social standing. Historically in Mauritania, out of the four major ethnic groups (White Moors, Black Moors, Black Africans and Harantine), the Harantine are the traditional slave class. They are kept subordinate through systematic discrimination and told that Islam dictates they must be slaves. Denied an education, religion is the closest thing they have to knowledge, and this is a powerful weapon.

Foreigners have had difficulty infiltrating Mauritania because the nation seems set on preserving the status quo. CNN described the great lengths they had to go to even to write a report on the situation, much less intervene, inventing a fake investigation, dodging an official assigned to watch them, knowing they could be deported or tortured if discovered.

Currently, Anti-Slavery International is working with the local organization SOS Enclaves to work on freeing individual slaves, but are facing great odds. Not only the government of Mauritania, but the political instability that plagues the nation, threats to the anti-slave workers themselves and the indoctrination of the citizens of Mauritania.

Moulkheir herself was lucky – after enduring unimaginable circumstances, she and her daughter, with the help of SOS, managed to escape and form a new life for themselves. They live together in a one-room shack and are even attended a school for former slaves, funded by the SOS-Enclave.

However, most of the 3.5 million slaves in Mauritania are not so lucky. During the interview, CNN asked Free the Slaves worker Kevin Bales what could help Mauritania, to which he replied that global demand for change could make a difference. “It’s a destitute country. It needs a few friends in the world.”

– Farahnaz Mohammed

Source: CNN, AntiSlavery
Photo: Smithsonian Magazine