Anyone who thinks that slavery is an issue from a bygone era should think again.

It is alive and well, still afflicting millions of people around the world. And I don’t mean the atrocious conditions in which men, women and even children are held in by debt or people trafficking.

I mean old fashioned slavery – the ownership of one human being by another.

If you doubt this, just look at the Global Slavery Index.


Nowhere is this worse than in the benighted West African state of Mauritania.

Between 140,000 and 160,000 people are slaves. Today.

Below is an extract from the report. Why is so little said about it? Where is the United Nations or the African Union on this issue? What has the Arab League said about this? Next to nothing.

According to the report this is what the UN has done – it is hardly a tale of effective intervention in such a scandalous contravention of basic human rights.

“In 2010, an office of the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) opened in Nouakchott. It has since focused on developing a ‘road map’ to ending slavery and plans to work with the Government to implement the necessary steps. However, in December 2012, the road map had not yet been finalised or published.”

1. The problem
Mauritania has the highest proportion of people in slavery in the world. According to one NGO in Mauritania, up to 20 percent of the Mauritanian population is enslaved. While not identical to the Global Slavery Index estimated of prevalence, these two figures, in the absence of more precise measurement, point to a growing consensus of high levels of enslavement in Mauritania.

Slavery in Mauritania primarily takes the form of chattel slavery, meaning that adults and children in slavery are the full property of their masters who exercise total ownership over them and their descendants. Slave status has been passed down through the generations from people originally captured during historical raids by the slave-owning groups. People in slavery may be bought and sold, rented out and given away as gifts. Slavery is prevalent in both rural and urban areas.

It is reported that women are disproportionately affected by slavery; for example, they usually work within the domestic sphere, and a high level of control is exercised over their movements and social interactions. They are subject to sexual assault by their masters. Women’s roles include childcare and domestic chores, but they may also herd
animals and farm, as men in slavery do.
Beyond the context of private homes, it is reported that some boys, who have been sent to attend Koranic schools to become talibes (students), have been forced into begging. Although the scale of this problem is not known, it is thought to be quite significant; affecting local boys as well as boys trafficked into Mauritania from
the surrounding regions.
It is also reported that women have been subjected to forced marriage and sexual exploitation, both within Mauritania but also in the Middle East.
Slaves are not permitted to have any possessions, as they are considered to be possessions themselves. As such they are denied inheritance rights and ownership of land and other resources. When an enslaved person marries, the dowry is taken by the ‘master’ and if they die their property can be claimed by the ‘master’.
Notable aspects of the problem Mauritanian society is made up of three main ethnic groups, commonly known as Black Moors or Haratins, Afro-Mauritanians, and White Moors. Haratins, whose name literally means “ones who have been freed”, are descendants of the Black Moors, the historical slave population (‘Haratin’ is not a term that is used by Haratin people use to identify themselves as it can be discriminatory). The Haratins are understood to be the ‘property’ of the White Moors, who are a minority in the country but wield disproportionate (majority) political and economic power.

Indoctrination to ensure people in slavery accept their situation of ownership is a key feature of slavery in Mauritania, with understandings of race and class, as well as some religious teachings being used to justify slavery.
Without access to education or alternative means of subsistence, many believe that it is God’s wish for them to be slaves. As most people in slavery are kept illiterate and uneducated, they are unaware of the fact that according to Islamic law, a Muslim cannot enslave a fellow Muslim. Compounding this, the legal and policy framework to protect women’s rights in Mauritania is extremely deficient, with many discriminatory laws. Indeed, according to the 2001 Family Code (Code du Statut personnel), women remain perpetual minors. Harmful traditional practices, including early and forced marriages and female genital mutilation, are commonplace.

There is no specific law against violence against women and marital rape is not a crime. Although Mauritania has ratified the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), it entered a reservation stating that only articles that comply with Sharia Law and the Mauritanian Constitution would be applied. The Sharia Law and the Criminal Code currently pose grave violations to women’s rights; for
instance, women who are victims of rape can be prosecuted for the crime of Zina (adultery).