Slavery in Mauritania is not what most people envision when they hear the word. There are no slave markets; people are not bought and sold (although they may be lent out or rented). Most slaves are domestic workers, caught in a social phenomenon dating back hundreds of years that usually takes the form of a close linkage between two families, one bound to serve the other, the other bound, at least in principle, to provide for and protect.
Despite a 2007 law outlawing slavery, the practice remains fairly widespread. No one knows exact numbers, but a 2008 briefing paper by Anti-Slavery International cited estimates then that up to 18 per cent of Mauritania's population of 3.5m might still be enslaved.
Slavery can be found affecting all ethnic groups. But most of those affected are from the group known as Haratines, who are the descendants of members of sub-Saharan African groups who were originally enslaved (in many cases, sold by their own relatives or by neighboring tribes) by Arabic speakers. Thus, they speak Arabic as their mother tongue, but, notwithstanding a lot of mixing, are generally darker in skin color than the slave owners. The owners are generally from the people referred to as "Moors", who identify themselves as Arab, in opposition to "African" or “black". This group is also called in Mauritania the "Beidanes”, and are as much, or more Berber than Arab. Slavery also exists and has existed within the sub-Saharan African tribes, but it is less persistent and less institutionalized then the Beidane/Haratine slavery.
Slavery exists in both rural and urban areas, although it is more common in rural areas. In towns, one finds many Haratine families living independently of their masters, yet still subject to being asked, or ordered, to provide free labor. The flipside is that they may go to their masters’ families to ask for loans or other benefits when in need. But rural slavery is the most pernicious in the sense that it's most difficult to escape: rural slaves are less likely to have any sort of marketable skill, and more likely to live in total isolation from modern ideas or alternate lifestyles. And even if they had the will to escape, they might walk for days through the desert before finding other people.
Though it lacks the obvious drama suggested by the word, slavery in Mauritania has devastating effects on slaves and their descendants. Slaves who remain dependent on their masters’ families usually receive no education and have no skills with which to support themselves. Most of them have no birth registration or documentation of their identity, meaning that they cannot travel, even within the country, or vote. Many slaves do not know who their fathers are, because when female slaves are impregnated by someone in the master’s family, the father does not recognize the child. This becomes a further obstacle to getting documentation and to living independently. When slaves marry among themselves, husbands and wives may be separated, and parents separated from their children.
Mauritania's 2007 law criminalized possession of slaves, and specified compensation that should be paid by masters to slaves. In the subsequent years, frustration mounted that no one had been prosecuted under the law. In many cases, activists brought masters and slaves to a police station, where both parties would freely admit to the master–slave relationship, but the police refused to bring charges.
Less dramatic but equally frustrating, activists are often helpless to challenge the social and emotional foundations of slavery. Slaves are traditionally taught that God intended them to serve their masters; some believe it. The police are unable to intervene where the victim says that she or he has no complaint. Under the law, the activists themselves have no standing.
However, years of activism are finally having an effect. This month, the first conviction was handed down under the 2007 law. But the consequences are not all good. There are reports that some masters, newly afraid of being prosecuted, are throwing slaves out of their households, leaving them homeless and destitute. Stories are circulating of slaveholders near the border sending their slaves to work in a neighboring country to avoid detection, or moving across the border to be safe from prosecution.
These events highlight what antislavery activists have said all along: that just as important as the law is the establishment of a government agency for the social rehabilitation of slaves, an agency that would provide housing, clothes, moral support, and training to free the slaves, so that they would ultimately be able to live independently. The government has long resisted doing this, generally refusing to admit that slavery even exists—notwithstanding the fact that a law against it was recently passed. The official line is that whatever cases currently exist are only the "vestiges" of slavery.
Semantics aside, the unexpected consequences of a one-sided if more aggressive anti-slavery policy, and the attendant social upheaval, are real.