Slavery in Mauritania

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Slavery in Mauritania


Slavery is common in the desert country of Mauritania. ( under a Creative Commons Licence)

Mauritania is a large desert country with a low population and there is a lot of slavery. But slavery became illegal in 1981 and it became a crime against humanity in 2012.

Mauritania is on the west coast of the Sahara, and the 2013 Global Slavery Index says it has the highest number of slaves per head of population. This index was created by Walk Free Foundation (the anti-slavery charity); they found that 151,000 people –almost four per cent of the population – could be slaves. Other groups have said it could be up to 20 per cent.

Slavery in Mauritania is “chattel slavery”; people own generations of slaves and their families. The first slaves were captured a long time ago by slave-owning groups, and all their families have been slaves since then.

It is also mixed with racism. Mauritania has three main ethnic groups: Haratins, Afro-Mauritanians and White Moors. Generational slavery continues because people think the Haratins (black Africans stolen from villages a few centuries ago in Arab-African wars) are the property of the White Moors.

Abidine Ould-Merzough (a human rights activist from the Haratin community who now lives in Germany) says the White Moors (a minority in Mauritania) have too much political power. ‘They don’t allow the Haratin community to develop. If they allow them education, they will refuse to be slaves and will compete for power,’ he says.

Also, in Mauritania, people use religious teachings to say slavery is OK. ‘One understanding of Islam says that society is in two parts – masters and slaves,’ says Ould-Merzough. ‘The slaves accept this and believe that God wants them to be slaves.’

Some critics say that people don’t want to stop slavery in Mauritania because the country is in an important place politically(they say it is an important friend of the West against Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb). And the Mauritanian government says that slavery is not allowed; they say they give strong punishments to any slavery they find.

There are shocking stories and statistics about slavery, but there are positive things happening too. ‘The anti-slavery movement in Mauritania is growing and that really keeps me optimistic,’ says Saidou Wane (Mauritanian human rights activist in the US). ‘There is some progress: people are starting to understand the problems. And all groups are starting to understand - some Arabs [White Moors] are getting involved, too’.

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