Mauritania: The Face of Modern Day Slavery

Although Mauritania officially abolished slavery in 1981 and made the practice a crime in 2007, slavery is still a common phenomenon in the country. A CNN special report titled “Slavery's last stronghold” reveals that an estimated 10% to 20% of the population lives in slavery and there has been only one conviction since the practice was outlawed in 2007.

The government of Mauritania, a country in the Maghreb in West Africa, usually denies the existence of slavery in the country.

Responding to the CNN's special report, Erin Pettigrew, a Mauritania expert, explains the complexity of the problem:

Slave traders in Gorée, Senegal, 18th century. Image by Jacques Grasset de Saint-Sauveur (Public Domain).

I’ve been working in Mauritania on and off for the past eight years and this issue of ‘slavery’ is still one I am struggling to fully understand. I certainly cringe every time I see a young black child working in someone’s home, whether they be Black or Arab, in Mauritania and these relationships of work and pay are rarely clear to me. Likewise, one’s clan and lineage affiliations are sometimes difficult to sort out and this is what people use most to justify the history and current reality of exploitative labor practices. The extreme economic inequalities in Mauritania play a large part in the preservation of these relationships. And the role of government and then outside intervention in all of this? Here, I am very hesitant to comment.

After reading CNN's report, Abby asked her friend about slavery in Mauritania. This was his response:

The documentary certainly misrepresented a lot. Nothing they said was factually incorrect but they highlighted a few abuses, ignored a lot of context and made it seem a lot worse than it is. Many white moor families had a black moor family that “belonged to them.” They would cook and do chores etc and while, I'm sure there were many cases of abuses, the system functioned because of lack of economic alternatives, not cruelty. No industries economically benefited from slavery. That was all mentioned but certainly not emphasized in the documentary probably because the reporters spent a total of 8 days in Mauritania. PC Mauritania was hard because it was a poor country without a lot of luxuries but in some ways it was easier than Morocco. People were welcoming and had fewer preconceived notions based on tourism. Harassment was lower and communities were closer. Mauritania has a host of serious problems, corrupt government, desertification, lack of water/enough wells, poor education system etc. Slavery will go away when those problems are fixed not when CNN airs a poorly made documentary.

How and wy slavery still exists in Mauritania? Steve Davis explains:

The country supposedly abolish slavery in 1981. Yes that’s right 1981! However, it is still widely practiced, even though the government denies it exists. In fact the nation only made slavery a crime in 2007. How and why does slavery still exist in 2012? Here are some reasons,
the government does little to discourage it.

it is difficult to enforce laws because the country is huge and largely empty in the Sahara Desert. local Islamic leaders (imams) speak openly in favor of slavery.

racism is rampant, lighter-skinned people have historically owned darker-skinned people in the country. The “White Moors” are a light-skinned Berber people who speak Arabic. They are the power class in the country and have traditionally owned slaves. The “Black Moors” are darker-skinned people who also speak Arabic. They have historically been enslaved by the White Moors.

the population is poorly educated. Most slaves don’t even understand they are enslaved. to most of Mauritania’s slaves the idea of being owned and treated as property is normal and has been for centuries.

Progress4 Women wonders if this is a situation of “out of sight, out of mind”:

Maybe it is because the average person has not even heard of this country that this blatant injustice is not current news – they are indeed out of sight and out of mind right?? These slaves are people that are deserving of ALL basic human rights especially freedom. Kevin Bales said that “Slavery is theft — theft of a life, theft of work, theft of any property or produce, theft even of the children a slave might have borne.” – and he is correct. These men, women and children are in bondage both physically and psychologically. Their minds are not filled with hopes and dreams, but rather thoughts of oppression and strife.

I knew that slavery still existed under new headlines of prostitution and child labor etc. (because categorizing it into neater columns makes us feel better), but the era in which governments turned a blind eye (and in which Mauritania falls), I truly thought that time had passed. Regardless of how we try to soften the blow with our sophisticated euphemisms – as long as people are thought of as property, slavery exists!!

Recently, two sisters escaped from their master walking across the Sahara desert. Lissnup blogs about their ordeal:

With the help of a Tuareg nomad, they headed first toward Bassikounou and after two days, travelling at night to avoid detection and the risk of being forcibly returned, eventually reached Néma. At the age most girls are concerned with passing their school diploma, 14 year old Selama Mint Mbarek is already the mother of a son, born to her after being raped while serving as a farm hand for her former owner. Her younger sister, just 10 years old, has never experienced the inncocence of childhood, and was regularly beaten by her master. It was after one of these corporal punishments that the two little girls fled. Even so, Selama had to convince her sister that running away was worth the risk. Despite the perils of the journey ahead, Selama brought her child with her. According to the heartbreaking testimonies they delivered to the press, their master is still holding their aunt, brothers and cousins under his yoke.

Ahmed notes that these kinds of stories are “a drop in the sea” and that the government in Mauritania keeps turning a bling eye:

These stories are only a drop in the sea, for in Mauritania Anti-Slavery Organizations continue to uncover cases of slavery but the government keeps turning a blind eye. No clear programs are put in place to rescue the enslaved from their misery, nor to better the conditions of the previously enslaved who suffer under the heavy foot of poverty, illiteracy, and deprivation. Human rights activists who uncover cases of slavery are subject to continuous harassment and imprisonment and the last example is the arrest of activist in the east of Mauritania and putting them in the worst conditions where a leaked picture showed one of them stripped naked and tied in one of the places they were held in

In June 2011, Aconerly wrote a piece titled “Beyond Abolition: Ending Slavery in Mauritania”:

Slaves in Mauritania do not have a legal right to own property, let alone have a surname. Nor do they have a right to custody of their children. The 2007 law criminalizing the ownership of slaves was received with resistance and scoffing. The director of the Mauritanian government‘s Human Right Commission, Bamariam Koita even defended the fact that as of yet, no one had been prosecuted under the law. He argued that there are no chains and slave markets, and 1981 law that abolished slavery invalidates any argument that slavery exists in Mauritania. However, Mr. Koita painted a simplistic picture of slavery. In the 2007 article entitled „Slavery Past and Present,“ one man, Mohamed- he gave no surname because he was a slave- countered the director‘s statements by listing the members of his family who were enslaved. A slave‘s chains are socio-economic and generational in nature. The fact remains that a centuries-old tradition of master-slave relations whereby the dominant „white Moors“ (or Arabs) exist in superior positions to the Black Africans who lived in intergenerational slavery bolstered by undereducation and economic disenfranchisement.

Here is a sample of tweets about slavery in Mauritania:

@Munns: For a country like Mauritania to not acknowledge slavery and all the abuse the people endure is definitely going against the deen [religion].

@RedTopShwty: Slavery still exists in the country of Mauritania…. That's awful. Wish there was something I could do about it

@Stef_Muller: @khanyisile There's slavery everywhere, I guess the diff is it's legal in Mauritania (can't read the article).

A UN Special Rapporteur led a mission to Mauritania in 2009 to evaluate slavery practices in the country. Other human rights issues in Mauritania include female genital mutilation, child labour, and human trafficking.


Cancel this reply

Join the conversation -> James Williams

Authors, please log in »


  • All comments are reviewed by a moderator. Do not submit your comment more than once or it may be identified as spam.
  • Please treat others with respect. Comments containing hate speech, obscenity, and personal attacks will not be approved.

Receive great stories from around the world directly in your inbox.

Sign up to receive the best of Global Voices!

Submitted addresses will be confirmed by email, and used only to keep you up to date about Global Voices and our mission. See our Privacy Policy for details.

Newsletter powered by Mailchimp (Privacy Policy and Terms).

* = required field
Email Frequency

No thanks, show me the site