- Today, on the UN's Day for the Abolition of Slavery, focus is again on Mauritania, which is accused of not acting strongly to abolish slavery. While the new government has lifted an old ban on anti-slavery groups and the issue of slavery finally may be discussed in the press, little progress is made in fighting the illegal practice, human rights groups hold.
The Germany-based Society for Threatened Peoples (GfbV) today denounced that "slavery still casts shadow over Mauritania," 25 years since it became the last country in the world to abolish the institution. Mauritania "still suffers from the consequences of centuries of slavery," GfbV said in a statement today.
Ulrich Delius of the German group today noted that the new Mauritanian government "under great doubts" had softened its stands on slavery during the last months. "After years of taboos, one finally can speak freely in public on the issue of slavery," Mr Gelius noted. While this was "a step in the right direction," slavery still was "a serious problem" in Mauritanian society, he added.
Although slavery was forbidden by law in 1980, the recently toppled regime of President Maouiya Ould Taya was known to do noting to fight the age-old tradition, where the country's rich Moors held mostly black Africans as slaves. Escaped slaves were not assisted by authorities, but on many cases sent back to their masters. Human rights groups like SOS Esclaves were prohibited, accused of tarnishing Mauritania's image abroad. New cases of slavery were nevertheless uncovered each and every year.
A few months ago, however, the Mauritanian government lifted the ban on SOS Esclaves and the Mauritanian Human Rights Association. The two groups thus could stop working undercover. Since August, the new regime of Colonel Ely Ould Mohamed Vall has let the country's independent press operate more freely, which has resulted in the rapid fall of national taboos such as human rights abuses in general and slavery in particular.
Nonetheless, Colonel Vall has yet to announce a concrete policy on how to fight slavery, which still remains widespread in rural areas of Mauritania. In fact, new examples keep surfacing. GfbV today refers to the 14-year-old girl nicknamed Khadama, who in October was able to flee from her masters. Several years ago, the young girl was sent from her rural home to the capital, Nouakchott, by her parents "with the hope of obtaining good education."
But instead of going to school, Khadama and her niece M'barka for years were obliged to do unpaid domestic works at her master's home in the capital. "I have been maltreated by my masters for the slightest mistake," Khadama told her defenders at SOS Esclaves. M'barka, she added had "been raped by them and she is now pregnant."
The young girl only dared to escape the Nouakchott compound when her master went to neighbouring Senegal during Ramadan. Khadama found help at SOS Esclaves, who decided that her slavery experience should serve as a test case. Together, they denounced her enslaving to Nouakchott police and the Ministry of the Interior.
It however turned out that little had changed in Mauritania since the August coup d'état. Instead of going after Khadama's master, police officers filed a case against her enslaved niece, who was charged with "forbidden sexual relationships" with her master. M'barka, the police officers noted, after all was a child and unmarried and thus not allowed to engage in sexual relationships.
According to Mr Gelius, the case of Khadama and M'barka is "a good example of the faith of tens of thousands of black Africans" still living in slavery in Mauritania. The case of the two girls is far from the first where police officers are found to assist the masters instead of the escaped slaves.
The practice of slavery in Mauritania is most dominant within the traditional upper class of the Moors. For centuries, the so-called Haratin lower class, mostly poor black Africans living in rural areas, have been considered natural slaves by these Moors. Social attitudes have changed among most urban Moors, but in rural areas, the ancient divide is still very alive.
There have been many attempts to assess the real extension of slavery in modern Mauritania, but these have mostly been frustrated by the Nouakchott government's official stance that the practice has been eliminated. In 1994, Amnesty International claimed that 90,000 Blacks still live as "property" of their master. The further estimated that some 300,000 freed slaves continued to serve their former masters because of psychological or economic dependence.
SOS Eslaves in Mauritania is now calling for international assistance to fight this practice. "An immediate action is urgently needed to look into the widespread slavery in the country," the Mauritanian human rights groups said in a November statement. The group condemned Mauritanian authorities for the continued "silence over the practice."
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