As torrents of tears rolled down her face, Habi Mutraba told the Guardian, “I have been hit, tortured, humiliated – I’m always the first to wake up and the last to go to sleep.”
Mutraba, who has been a slave since birth, is one of some 600,000 trapped in a system of modern-day slavery in the West African state of Mauritania. Her mother was made pregnant by her “master” and when Mutraba was born, she was given away to one of his family members. As she grew, the cycle would repeat itself. Regularly raped by the head of the household and his son, Mutraba became pregnant and gave birth to a child who, as tradition dictates, would also be a slave. Most of those entrenched in slavery come from generations of slaves and as such, have no knowledge of what life is like outside of slavery.
Like other Mauritanian slaves, Mutraba was not allowed to go to school or to have identity documents such as a passport or birth paper. Slaves are also routinely punished and tortured in ways that render them permanently scarred, disfigured, or relegated to a life of chronic pain.
Instead, Mutraba’s life is one of servitude that revolves around tending to her “owner’s” livestock and household chores. She despaired that no one could help her out of her demise and that she is at the mercy of her masters.
In 1981, Mauritania became one of the last countries in the world to abolish slavery. Despite the government routinely refuting claims that the practice still persists, thousands remain in bonded labour with experts estimating that around 20% of the population is enslaved. Slaves are traded like animals amongst those who find themselves in the upper echelons of the society’s caste system, which includes government officials.
The persistence of a slavery system in Mauritania has remained largely unchanged over history. For hundreds of years, a discriminatory system has thrived where those enslaved are the dark-skinned Haratine and Afro-Mauritanian ethnic minorities, while their “owners” are light-skinned Arab-Berbers. This caste system dates back to as early as the 8th century. The Haratines who are free, are resigned to doing jobs that Arab-Berbers consider to be demeaning. Some of those roles may involve garbage collection, butchery, and working in the local markets. Furthermore, Haratines are denied various rights such as education, equal land ownership, and political representation.
To further bolster the custom, there has been continued intimidation and harassment of anti-slavery activists in Mauritania, who have been accused by the government of inciting unrest and creating disharmony in society because of their anti-slavery activism. Over the years, many have been imprisoned by the government.
Freedom United is an organisation which has campaigned for prominent Mauritanian anti-slavery activists to be released from prison, including Biram Dah Abeid, a presidential candidate in 2018 and founder of an anti-slavery endeavour called the Initiative for the Resurgence of the Abolitionist Movement (IRA),
Joanna Ewart-James, Executive Director of Freedom United explained, “On the one hand, the national government refuses to recognise the extent of slavery in Mauritania, claiming that it does not exist, or that only “vestiges of slavery” remain. On the other hand, policies and legislation the government has passed to outlaw slavery are neither effective nor implemented.
“Fundamentally, Mauritania needs to address structural racism in society which fuels slavery in the country.”
As with the slave trade in the West, the slavery that exists in Mauritania is heavily dominated by racial tensions and profiling. The light-skinned and affluent Arab-Berber population makeup around 30 per cent of society and regulate the country’s political and economic infrastructure. As such, since they rank at the top and may own slaves themselves, there is little incentive to alter a system that works in their favour.
According to the Global Slavery Index, Mauritania is estimated to be amongst the top ten countries in the world for a high prevalence of slavery within its population. This system often takes the form of generational chattel slavery, meaning people are seen as the property of their “masters”. It is especially complex in comparison to other countries because this system is deeply intertwined with racism and colourism. Children born to those enslaved are treated as the “property” of the “masters”, illustrating the hereditary nature of this descent-based slavery.
“We know that ethnic Haratine continue to be trapped in chattel slavery, and when they speak out against abuses they’re being silenced by the government suggesting that the country is not ready to make this shift. As there are cases of people being rescued from their abusive “masters” receiving no official recognition of their victim status by the government, with little in the way of rehabilitation support, let alone economic opportunities to get back on their feet, a sustainable end to the conditions in which it thrives remains far off,“ Ewart-James added.