NOUAKCHOTT, Mauritania — “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,” said Brahim Bilal Ramdhane, who lives in this West African capital and was enslaved during his childhood.
“They will just tell you that people who say this are against the government,” he said.
Walking through the paved streets on the outskirts of Nouakchott to meet Ramdhane, men dressed in long white robes with scarves wrapped around their faces were barely visible in the moonlight. Through dimly lighted windows, children could be seen huddled around small TVs. Few women were seen outdoors in this Islamic nation.
Mauritania is a desert country of large sand dunes and a coastline on the Atlantic, where Nouakchott is situated. It is one of the last countries in the world to finally criminalize slavery, a phenomenon that with a culture of discrimination and sexism disproportionately affects women, who suffer rapes and other degrading treatment as part of the bondage that continues today.
Ramdhane welcomed me into his home, pouring small cups of traditional Mauritanian black tea as he narrated his tale. Since fleeing slavery, he said, he has become a leader of the Initiative for the Revival of the Abolitionist Movement, an antislavery organization run by ex-slaves in Mauritania. Ramdhane is one of many former slaves dedicated to fighting slavery in his country, which officially ended in 2007 but persists.
It is estimated that more than 25 million women, men and children are currently being held illegally as slaves for labor or sexual purposes worldwide. Most slaves are kidnapped, tricked or sold into bondage.
Slavery in Mauritania has its own history, run on a descent-based system that has been a part of the country’s feudal social structure. Children become slaves through their mothers. Ramdhane, for example, 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 Global Slavery Index estimates that at least 40,000 people are enslaved in Mauritania 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.”
The slavery system is largely built on ethnic divisions in the country, which is divided between the white Moors, or 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.
“The idea that you are born a slave comes from Islam,” Ramdhane said. “They say that if you capture someone in war, then they are prisoners and can be made slaves.”
Those who remain 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 the prophet, Muhammad, 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 Moor, 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 chose to stay and live with their former owners, he said.
“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 bondage.
The harsh realities of those born into slavery are especially trying for women. 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 rescuing slaves and helping them press charges against their masters, said that since 2014 the group has rescued 38 women from slavery. Sexual abuse is a major aspect of the female slaves’ experience.
“Considered as property, female slaves are usually raped by their masters,” Lam said.
Outside Nouakchott, Mbaraka Esatene explained how sexual violence was a big part of her life as a slave. Sitting underneath a small tentlike structure while stirring a 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.”
Sarah Mathewson, the Africa program manager for Anti-Slavery International, says that control over women’s reproductive capacity is a key facet of the slavery system.
“The terrorizing of women through sexual and reproductive control is patriarchy laid bare,” Mathewson 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.”
Women can also be punished for having children outside of marriage. Mauritania’s sharia law prohibits sexual relations outside marriage, so such behavior is punishable, even if you have been raped.
“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,” Mathewson said. “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.”
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. Fatma Gamal Achor, a former slave, still fears that her children could be taken by her former masters.
Mathewson emphasized that even within the antislavery movement, women may face discrimination, too. “Some men are still just fighting for equality between men,” she said.
Nonetheless, for the many female activists who are fighting the brutalities of Mauritania’s discriminatory social system, they will battle on. I asked Achor what would be her message for women who are being held as slaves in other areas of the world as well.
“Please come and fight for the women in Mauritania,” she said.
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Johanna Higgs is from Perth, Australia. She is working on her Ph.D. in cultural anthropology from La Trobe University in Melbourne and is the director of Project MonMa, a nonprofit group focused on improving women’s lives. She has an undergraduate degree in anthropology and politics from James Cook University in Queensland, and a master’s degree in international development from Deakin University in Victoria. She speaks English and Spanish.