Sequestered away in the far Western reaches of the Sahara desert lies the country of Mauritania, which remains an enigma for the vast majority of people due to its relatively low international profile. However, its inconspicuous nature plays the part of a shroud veiling a practice considered abhorrent by most in the international community; slavery.
Mauritania became the last country in the world to abolish slavery, doing so in 1981 due to international pressure, yet legislation to criminalize the practice was only passed in 2007. A 2016 study from the Walk Free Foundation found that roughly four percent of Mauritania's population lived in conditions of modern slavery. It is estimated that 53% of those enslaved in Mauritania have been done so through forced marriages.
Slavery in Mauritania is far from a new practice, rather it is a relic of the Trans-Saharan slave trade which flourished many centuries ago. Since the criminalization of slavery in Mauritania, only one slave owner has been prosecuted by the state. Despite the ostensible formalities of existing anti-slavery legislation, many still find themselves facing discrimination and living in situations of formal and informal dependence on slave owners.
Slavery's lingering legacy in Mauritania
The socio-economic make-up of the country has played a key role in the continuing survival of this practice. Roughly half of the population is considered illiterate, and the population contends with a 30 percent unemployment rate: an estimated 44 percent of the population living under $2 a day.
One of the complexities that the Mauritanian government faces in tackling this issue is slavery’s entrenchment in the social and historic fabric of the state, argues Professor Jeremy Keenan, a regional expert at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London.
To further understand the issue one must look at the ethnic composition of Mauritania, which is formed up of four socially constructed groups; White Moors, Black Moors, Black Africans, and the Haratine. The White Moors traditionally hold more wealth proportional to the other groups, with most slave owners belong to this ethnic group.
Black Moors were historically enslaved by the White Moors, though the occurrence of which has almost disappeared as the former have adopted the language and traditions of their former masters. Black Africans on the other hand have never faced slavery and maintain unique cultures and languages originating from the sub-Saharan region.
It is the Haratine - a word literally meaning freed slaves - that exist in a paradoxical sphere between slavery, socio-economic discrimination, and freedom. The term labels those among Black Moors who were former slaves themselves, or those who are in informal or formal slavery.
This social construct of class and race is intricately interwoven into how slavery operates in Mauritania, yet to understand how it continues to survive one must look at the country and the issues it faces as a whole. Firstly, there is a reluctance on part of the Mauritanian government to acknowledge the issue of slavery within its own borders, which contradicts the narrative in their constitution, as any acknowledgement would apply pressure on them to act upon and recognize slavery as an internal issue.
Secondly, the vast deserts of the Sahara and the nomadic lifestyles of some slave owners make enforcement a nightmare for the cash-strapped nation with a GDP of only $5.4 billion and only two percent arable land. Finally, a rigid caste system where lighter skinned Mauritanians face less discrimination than their darker skinned brethren and a lack of education among many in the country have pushed the issue so far under the rug that many who are enslaved do not fully understand the conditions they were born into.
Mauritania's government must enforce its own laws
It would be unfair, and untrue, to solely blame the Mauritanian government and its limited resources for not tackling this issue head on. Nevertheless, if any effort is to be taken to rectify the situation, then it must start with an acknowledgement by the Mauritanian government of the issue. Acknowledging the actual problem paves the way for accountable, effective enforcement of anti-slavery laws.
This in turn would open the door for the Mauritania to lobby Western governments for funding and other resources to help mitigate the costs of monitoring and enforcing anti-slavery legislation, which would shift the pressure from overburdened local NGO's to the government. The key challenge, to which there is no easy answer, is changing the mentality of people who have been exposed to a traditional practice and way of thinking stretching back hundreds if not thousands of years.
As a final thought, restricting the scope of the issue of modern slavery to Mauritania would be narrow sighted, as an estimated 27 million people live in direct slavery across the world from Brazil to Indonesia. This is not including the numbers of those in indirect conditions of slavery, child soldiers, and those who are not accounted for. Nevertheless targeting the eradication of the remnants of institutionalized slavery in Mauritania and beyond ought to remain an important priority.
Khalid Shoukri is a fourth year Honours student in Political Science with a focus on International Relations at Carleton University. His previous work experience includes two years at the Parliament of Canada and two years at the World University Service of Canada.