Slavery is a historical practice in Mauritania. It was only abolished in 1981. Currently, more than two in every 100 people — 90,000 in total – live as slaves, said the 2018 Global Slavery Index. For a long time, authorities in Mauritania have denied the presence of modern slavery in the West African country. But activists say that members of the Haratine community in Mauritania, commonly referred to as Oasis-Dwellers and who hail from Black African ethnic groups in the Sahara region, are still in slavery.
Many of those still in slavery are born into slavery and belonging to White Moors, who form the ethnic elite in Mauritania and control the economy. As Thomson Reuters Foundation wrote in February 2020, the issue “cuts along racial lines, with black Haratin people typically enslaved as cattle herders and domestic servants by the lighter-skinned elite, known as white Moors.”
Indeed, the fight against modern-day slavery in Mauritania may take a long time, but things have been changing thanks to activists like Salimata Lam, the national coordinator for SOS Esclaves, an association in the West African country dedicated to fighting modern-day slavery. In 2015, Mauritania doubled the prison term for offenders from 10 to 20 years. It also criminalized 10 other forms of slavery, including forced marriage, Aljazeera reported.
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Then in 2016, two slave-owners were convicted by Nema Court (a special court established to try slavery-related cases). The court also ordered the two convicts to compensate two female victims. Those became the first-ever convictions by the special anti-slavery court since its establishment in 2013 under a new anti-slavery law.
Anti-slavery organizers including Lam applauded the convictions. “This is the first time that a trial has gone from start to finish and it really gives us hope in the months to come that we can make progress on other cases,” Lam, who has been working with SOS Esclaves since 2010, said following the convictions. Founded in 1995 by a former Mauritanian lawyer, Boubacar Ould Messaoud, SOS Esclaves is said to be the country’s premier antislavery organization where former slaves are given security and job training. Victims of slavery get to learn to dye clothes, cook, tailor, style hair, among other activities.
“SOS Esclaves,” as Lam explained in 2015, “fights for the eradication of slavery through familial descent. We provide recourse for slaves and former slaves, and we raise community awareness about the laws against slavery, and the rights of people under the laws. We make pleas to policymakers to improve the laws and their application. We also provide legal assistance to victims seeking redress.”
Lam has been described by her colleagues as the backbone of the association, making all sorts of personal sacrifices in the fight against modern forms of slavery in her country despite the risks. According to a report, Mauritanian courts frequently convict individuals for activism and clamp down on free press.
Lam’s fight against social injustices shouldn’t be surprising though. Growing up in the village of Boghe, which is in the Brakna region of southern Mauritania, she has been an activist right from her teens when she joined a pro-democracy movement. Even being deported from her country for three years in the 1980s to being stripped of her citizenship did not deter her from her fight against injustice. “I saw that the system was unjust. It strengthened my resolve to combat injustice,” she was quoted by international non-governmental organization MRG.
MRG and SOS Esclaves are partners in the fight against modern forms of slavery in Mauritania, holding dialogues with the state and training programs with journalists, activists, paralegals and magistrates. In February 2020 when Mauritania joined the U.N. Human Rights Council for the first time, activists called on the government to get rid of descent-based slavery as failure to do so will mean going against the very principles on which the United Nations is based.
That year, anti-slavery campaigners said some children who reported to the police of being enslaved were forced to change their story and then sent back home after local court hearings. And that is why Lam and her SOS Esclaves have resolved to ensure the security of victims. “If we only take the victim to the police… there is always a moment when the master or the master’s family can take them back,” Lam was quoted in a report by the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
She has however mentioned that she is seeing progress, even if that progress is slow: “Fifty years ago, if you called someone a Haratine, they would be insulted. Today, the people say, yes we are Haratine. They are ready to assume their identity. People want to be free, to live in dignity. This tendency is irreversible.”