Slavery still weighs heavily on Mauritanian society despite ban
By Mohamed Yahya Ould Abdel Wedoud in Nouakchott and Jamel Arfaoui in Tunis – 03/02/09
During a seminar entitled "Discrimination in Inheritance" held in Tunis on January 24th, Mauritanian human rights organisations and activists spoke out against slavery, which they said is still eroding Mauritanian society.
"Slavery is a painful reality in Mauritania," said Bairam Ould Messaoud, head of Mauritania-based organisation SOS Slaves. "Some families still own slaves and take them around houses and farms here in Nouakchott without the government intervening."
Activists also called on the women participating in the seminar to help in any way possible to rid Mauritania of what they called "a burden and problem" in Mauritanian society, especially in the suburban east and south.
Although the Mauritanian government outlawed slavery in 1984, Ould Messaoud said the ban failed to overcome traditional powers and was never functional. "Slaves are tied to their masters by intellectual, religious and financial manacles. Unless slaves are financially released, slavery will continue to have the upper hand," he concluded.
In 2006, the government passed a new law that imposes a fine of 200,000 to one million Ouguiya on anyone guilty of involvement in human trafficking.
But even that law has not been enforced on the ground, said Mauritanian Aminatou Bent Mokhtar, President of the Female Breadwinners Association. The authorities, she added, do little to end the suffering of many girls who endure various forms of abuse, including sexual abuse.
Other participants in the seminar were astonished to hear accounts of slavery in Mauritania.
"I am calling on fellow women in Mauritania to take action on the widest possible scale to unravel such practices," said Nabiah Hadoush, an official in the Moroccan Women's Association.
"We in Morocco are ready to support them through our regional and international relations. Why not set up a Maghreb partnership to terminate such practices that violate human rights?" she asked. "This is insulting to all North African citizens. We should never accept it in the 21st century."
Nfesia Iben, member of the steering committee of the Moroccan Association for the Defence of Women's Rights, suggested forming a women's alliance in order to defend victims of human trafficking in Mauritania.
"We must write to the Mauritanian government and human rights organisations… to inform them that what is going on is shameful and we should never be silent about it," Iben added.
According to Mauritanian activist Sarah Al Sadeq, traders of female slaves usually find their victims in poor areas or among peasants who moved to the capital to escape years of drought.
One of the problems activists and organisations face when they address the issue, Al Sadeq said, is the lack of sufficient government manpower to assess the scope of the problem.
"Civil society institutions do not have the financial resources to collect accurate statistics, and authorities hardly pay attention to the problem," Al Sadeq said.
UN figures show that there are nearly 1.2 million children victims of human trafficking around the world; nearly 246 million are engaged in child labour. Human traffickers make around 31 billion dollars annually from the slave trade.
Even when they are released, a lack of education and proper knowledge of the surroundings often limits the freedom of victims of slavery.
"Freed slaves could not be socially independent," said reporter Maryam Bent Mohamed Laghzaf, "since they failed to be financially independent. Actually true slavery is financial slavery, not racial slavery, as some presume. Many masters released slaves a long time ago, but those slaves found themselves in tough economic conditions that led them to wish they could go back to living under their masters."
It is the government's responsibility to provide financial and educational aid for those victims to enable them to start anew, she concluded.
On the other hand, the Mauritanian government insists that slavery is a thing of the past and that what is left is on its way to disappearing.
"The state is presently engaged in fighting remnants of slavery and offering opportunities of equality to all social strata," said human rights commissioner Mohamad Lamain Ould Idad. "The budget allocated by my sector for the project amounts to 1.4 billion Ouguiya."
Ould Idad said he met with groups of enslaved people to hear their experiences. "Some victims tell tragic stories of the painful reality they suffered, having no magic wand to help them come out of it," he said.
Bilal, 50, is one of those victims. He was born in a milieu to a society that did not practice equality or justice, he said.
"My father would take camels to graze all day," he said. "My mother would groom horses. I was devoured by humiliation and mortification throughout my entire childhood, my shackled adulthood and slain dreams. All of that is because of the dark complexion I was born with in this oppressive world."
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