Project MonMa in Mauritania

Project Monma travelled to Mauritania to learn more about the phenomenon of decent based slavery and how it affects women and girls. We met with a number of human rights activists campaigning to bring the practice to an end, as well as a number of ex-slaves who had been freed or managed to escape from slavery.

It is estimated that more than 25 million women, men and children are currently being held as slaves for labor or sexual purposes worldwide. Most slaves are kidnapped, tricked or sold into bondage. In Mauritania, the Global Slavery Index estimates that at least 40, 000 people are enslaved out of a population of four million, or 1 percent, which the index calls ‘a high proportion of people living in slavery in the world.’

Slavery in Mauritania however, has its own unusual history, run on a descent based system that has been a part of the country’s feudal social structure.

Children become slaves through their mother. Ramdhane for example, an ex slave was born into slavery. His mother was given as a gift to the nephew of her master when she was seven years old. So when Ramdhane was born, he too became a slave.

The slavery system is largely built on ethnic divisions in the country, which is ethnically structured between the white Moors, or the Arabs and the various black African groups, or black Moors. A rigid caste system favors the white Moors, who are considered the ethnic elite in Mauritania and control the economy, government, military and police. 

The Haratine make up the main slave group and are descended from black African ethnic groups from along the Senegal River. Mauritania was one of the last countries in the world to officially criminalize slavery, but it has remained entrenched in Mauritanian society. ‘The officials here in Mauritania will tell you the opposite of what victims will tell you, which is that there is no slavery in Mauritania. They will just tell you that people who say this are against the government,’ said Brahim, a man who had spent most of his life living as a slave.

After being given an opportunity to go to school, he realized that there was a life outside of slavery and was able to escape his masters.

‘The idea that you are born a slave comes from Islam,’ Ramdhane said. ‘They say that if you capture someone in war, than they are prisoners and can be made slaves.’ Those who are still enslaved are treated as property by their masters. They are never paid for their work although they may be given food and shelter. They are excluded from education and politics and unable to own land or inherit property.

For an Arab in Mauritania, to have honor you must own a slave. Slave owners justify slavery through Islam, arguing that Mohammad had slaves. ‘In their interpretation of Islam, they say that if God created you to be a slave, you must be a slave,’ Ramdhane said.

Mohammed Lemine Abeidy, a white Moorw, met with me in his large, spacious home where he described how slavery had long been part of his family. Male slaves would do the agricultural work while the women worked in the house. Abeidy claims that after slavery was officially banned in Mauritania, his family allowed their slaves to go free. But without animals, land, money or education, they had nowhere to go and no means of earning a living. They instead chose to stay and live with their former owners.

‘People would come to us and ask to be our slaves because they don’t have any food,’ he said. ‘They would ask to be our slaves because the social system is set up this way. They are looking for food and protection.’

Without access to education and often living in remote areas of Mauritania, many slaves are not aware of a life outside slavery.
Due to the culture of sexism and gender discrimination, it is a phenomenon that has disproportionally affected women, whether it be due to rape, forced marriage or other degrading treatment.

The harsh realities of those born into slavery are especially trying for women. Sharia law for example, says that a woman’s testimony is given only half the weigh of a man’s. Legal protections regarding property and pay equity for women are rarely respected in practice.

The low status of women means that female slaves are often subject to sexual abuse. Salimata Lam, the National Coordinator of SOS Esclaves, an organization working to rescue slaves and help them press charges against their masters, said that since 2014 SOS Esclaves has rescued 38 women from slavery. Sexual abuse is a
major part of the female slaves experience. ‘Considered as property, female slaves are usually raped by their masters,’ Lam said.

On the outskirts of Nouakchott Mbaraka Esatene, for example, explained how sexual violence was a big part of her experience as a slave. Sitting underneath a small tent like structure while stirring a big bowl of food, she described how she was forced to have sex with her master, with the sons of her master and the friends of her master. Anyone who wanted to have sex with her could. 

‘Rape is very common,’ she said. ‘To rape a slave is nothing, it is the same for the poor.’

Women are unlikely to report these rapes for fear of being jailed. Sexual relations outside of marriage are prohibited under sharia law, and, even if you have been raped, a child born out of wedlock is a punishable offence.

Sarah Matthewson from Slavery International said, ‘there have been cases where we have been trying to help women prosecute their masters and the state prosecutors have told us that the victim could have problems because she has children outside of marriage. It’s used as a deterrent for women to speak out in rape cases and to prosecute their slave owners because they could face charges
themselves.’

Matthewson says that control over women’s reproductive capacity is a key part of the slavery system. ‘The terrorizing of women through sexual and reproductive control is patriarchy laid bare,’ she said. ‘It’s about total control over women’s bodies and exploiting them for labor, sexual abuse and the next generation of children born to be slaves. There are no rights for women in that system.’

Matthewson emphasized that even within the antislavery movement, women may still face discrimination. ‘Some men are still just fighting for equality between men whereas women are seen as products to be sold and used.’ Women are therefore less likely to escape slavery and to seek justice.

For those who escape, the threat of being drawn back into slavery remains constant. For the many female activists who are fighting the brutalities of Mauritania’s discriminatory social system, they will battle on.

Project MonMa in Mauritania

Project Monma travelled to Mauritania to learn more about the phenomenon of decent based slavery and how it affects women and girls. We met with a number of human rights activists campaigning to bring the practice to an end, as well as a number of ex-slaves who had been freed or managed to escape from slavery.

It is estimated that more than 25 million women, men and children are currently being held as slaves for labor or sexual purposes worldwide. Most slaves are kidnapped, tricked or sold into bondage. In Mauritania, the Global Slavery Index estimates that at least 40, 000 people are enslaved out of a population of four million, or 1 percent, which the index calls ‘a high proportion of people living in slavery in the world.’

Slavery in Mauritania however, has its own unusual history, run on a descent based system that has been a part of the country’s feudal social structure. Children become slaves through their mother. Ramdhane for example, an ex slave was born into slavery. His mother was given as a gift to the nephew of her master when she was seven years old. So when Ramdhane was born, he too became a slave.

The slavery system is largely built on ethnic divisions in the country, which is ethnically structured between the white Moors, or the Arabs and the various black African groups, or black Moors. A rigid caste system favors the white Moors, who are considered the ethnic elite in Mauritania and control the economy, government, military and police. 

The Haratine make up the main slave group and are descended from black African ethnic groups from along the Senegal River. Mauritania was one of the last countries in the world to officially criminalize slavery, but it has remained entrenched in Mauritanian society. ‘The officials here in Mauritania will tell you the opposite of what victims will tell you, which is that there is no slavery in Mauritania. They will just tell you that people who say this are against the government,’ said Brahim, a man who had spent most of his life living as a slave.

After being given an opportunity to go to school, he realized that there was a life outside of slavery and was able to escape his masters.

‘The idea that you are born a slave comes from Islam,’ Ramdhane said. ‘They say that if you capture someone in war, than they are prisoners and can be made slaves.’ Those who are still enslaved are treated as property by their masters. They are never paid for their work although they may be given food and shelter. They are excluded from education and politics and unable to own land or inherit property.

For an Arab in Mauritania, to have honor you must own a slave. Slave owners justify slavery through Islam, arguing that Mohammad had slaves. ‘In their interpretation of Islam, they say that if God created you to be a slave, you must be a slave,’ Ramdhane said.

Mohammed Lemine Abeidy, a white Moorw, met with me in his large, spacious home where he described how slavery had long been part of his family. Male slaves would do the agricultural work while the women worked in the house. Abeidy claims that after slavery was officially banned in Mauritania, his family allowed their slaves to go free. But without animals, land, money or education, they had nowhere to go and no means of earning a living. They instead chose to stay and live with their former owners.

‘People would come to us and ask to be our slaves because they don’t have any food,’ he said. ‘They would ask to be our slaves because the social system is set up this way. They are looking for food and protection.’

Without access to education and often living in remote areas of Mauritania, many slaves are not aware of a life outside slavery.
Due to the culture of sexism and gender discrimination, it is a phenomenon that has disproportionally affected women, whether it be due to rape, forced marriage or other degrading treatment.

The harsh realities of those born into slavery are especially trying for women. Sharia law for example, says that a woman’s testimony is given only half the weigh of a man’s. Legal protections regarding property and pay equity for women are rarely respected in practice.

The low status of women means that female slaves are often subject to sexual abuse. Salimata Lam, the National Coordinator of SOS Esclaves, an organization working to rescue slaves and help them press charges against their masters, said that since 2014 SOS Esclaves has rescued 38 women from slavery. Sexual abuse is a
major part of the female slaves experience. ‘Considered as property, female slaves are usually raped by their masters,’ Lam said.

On the outskirts of Nouakchott Mbaraka Esatene, for example, explained how sexual violence was a big part of her experience as a slave. Sitting underneath a small tent like structure while stirring a big bowl of food, she described how she was forced to have sex with her master, with the sons of her master and the friends of her master. Anyone who wanted to have sex with her could. 

‘Rape is very common,’ she said. ‘To rape a slave is nothing, it is the same for the poor.’

Women are unlikely to report these rapes for fear of being jailed. Sexual relations outside of marriage are prohibited under sharia law, and, even if you have been raped, a child born out of wedlock is a punishable offence.

Sarah Matthewson from Slavery International said, ‘there have been cases where we have been trying to help women prosecute their masters and the state prosecutors have told us that the victim could have problems because she has children outside of marriage. It’s used as a deterrent for women to speak out in rape cases and to prosecute their slave owners because they could face charges
themselves.’

Matthewson says that control over women’s reproductive capacity is a key part of the slavery system. ‘The terrorizing of women through sexual and reproductive control is patriarchy laid bare,’ she said. ‘It’s about total control over women’s bodies and exploiting them for labor, sexual abuse and the next generation of children born to be slaves. There are no rights for women in that system.’

Matthewson emphasized that even within the antislavery movement, women may still face discrimination. ‘Some men are still just fighting for equality between men whereas women are seen as products to be sold and used.’ Women are therefore less likely to escape slavery and to seek justice.

For those who escape, the threat of being drawn back into slavery remains constant. For the many female activists who are fighting the brutalities of Mauritania’s discriminatory social system, they will battle on.

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