Hundreds of Mauritanians took to the streets in Nouakchott, Mauritania’s capital, this month to protest against slavery in the country and to demand for justice for the victims of slavery.
“This has become an annual tradition and it is now attracting more and more participation from the social elite, indicating that there is popular support for our demands,” Samba Ould Yahya, a Mauritanian activist was quoted by the Middle East Monitor.
The protesters called on the Mauritanian government to expedite the prosecution of slave owners and facilitate a smooth reintegration of former slaves back to the society.
Slavery in Mauritania
Behind Mauritania’s breathtaking sea of sand dunes rests an open secret: Close to 20 percent of the country’s population lives in slavery. This archaic practice continues in spite of the 1981 veto on slavery in the West African nation.
Slave ownership is a practice that has been passed down through generations among the light-skinned Berber and Arab Moor ethnic groups, commonly referred to as Beydanes, in Mauritania.
These communities have enslaved their fellow black Africans, who are the minority in the country, for hundreds of years.
Slavery of adults and children in Mauritania mainly takes the form of chattel slavery, where slaves and their descendants are considered the property of their masters.
In this vast desert country, slaves are sold and bought, rented out and given away as gifts.
Since slavery is matrilineal, descendants of slaves are expected to continue serving the same families their ancestors worked for. Women slaves are usually subject to sexual abuse by their masters.
These modern-day slaves are not restrained by shackles but by economic and psychological factors. They are also denied education and taught that questioning slavery is like questioning Islam.
The government of Mauritania, which is dominated by Beydanes, continues to deny the existence of slavery in the country, insisting that allegations of its existence are a manipulation by the West and act of enmity toward Islam.
Anti-slavery activists in Mauritania are often harassed by government forces and sometimes jailed for their efforts to end the practice. It is such a sensitive topic that even local journalists are afraid to talk about it.