State of the World's Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2013 - Case study: Mauritania - why do Haratine women still live in slavery?

The government must step up efforts to eradicate all forms of slavery and provide health care for its most vulnerable citizens.

Though facing serious obstacles Mauritania, 155th of 187 countries on the UN Development Programme's (UNDP's) Human Development Index, has been taking steps towards meeting the MDGs. In 2010 it was reported to be very close to halving extreme poverty, and had made slight progress against infant mortality, reducing it by 6.3 per cent between 1990 and 2010.

International analysts drew particular attention to Mauritania's progress in the area of women's participation in politics, the greatest on the African continent in 2010 following a July 2006 law that mandated a minimum of 20 per cent women's representation in municipal and legislative bodies. In 1992 there were no women parliamentarians, for example, while in 2007 they occupied 18 per cent of posts. In municipal elections in 2007, nearly 30 per cent of seats were won by women.

While its efforts to meet internationally agreed indicators have been recognized, Mauritania continues to confront a particular problem remaining from its past: slavery and its scars.

The dominant ethnic group in Mauritania is the White Maures, or Berber-Arabs. Historically they raided, captured and enslaved members of sedentary black ethnic groups, who are known today as the 'Haratines'. The term 'Haratine' is used today to refer to slaves and persons of slave descent.

The Haratines make up between 30 and 40 per cent of Mauritania's population. They are reported to be the most marginalized of the country's ethnicities; malnutrition, poverty and illiteracy are reportedly higher among them than among other groups. However, as health information is not disaggregated by ethnicity in Mauritania, the disparity is not easily quantifiable.

Boubacar Ould Massaoud, president of Mauritanian NGO SOS Esclaves, reported that roughly 80 per cent of Haratines are believed to live in poverty, and that Haratines make up the majority of the country's poor.

Despite a 2007 law criminalizing slavery, 10-20 per cent of Mauritania's population is estimated to live in slavery today; the vast majority of them are thought to be Haratines.

The March 2013 annual report of Mauritania's National Human Rights Commission (CNDH) drew attention to the persistence of slavery-like practices; at the same time, it pointed to efforts under the government's Strategic Framework for the Struggle against Poverty to reach descendants of slaves living in poor areas and facilitate their access to health and education services.

Slavery is reported to be most prevalent in the Hodh el Gharbi, Hodh ech Chargui and Trarza regions, where poverty, lack of education and adherence to a hierarchical tradition create conditions in which people continue to be enslaved, working in their masters' households or tending their herds.

While there is little data on the conditions of slavery, information received indicates that slaves often receive inadequate food and care; enslaved women and girls are particularly vulnerable to sexual violence.

Dozens of slaves have escaped or been freed since the 2007 law was passed, with most cases against their former masters being resolved outside of the courts or dropped due to pressure on the plaintiffs.

In November 2011 the first conviction was handed down, in a case involving the enslavement of two young boys. The accused was given a two-year sentence and ordered to pay compensation to the children; their lawyer appealed on the grounds that the judgment was too lenient. The owner was released on bail after four months' detention.

SOS Esclaves, founded in 1995, was deeply involved in the struggle to criminalize slavery in law in Mauritania. The organization now provides practical support and at times legal assistance to those escaping slavery, and works to combat the discrimination and social prejudices that underpin it.

On 29 April 2013 the 'Manifesto for the political, social and economic rights of Haratines' was launched by civil society organizations and Haratine community leaders.

It calls for a nationwide effort to develop a social contract for all Mauritanians, and for the establishment of a structural mechanism, with a budget and a public reporting function, responsible for the effective eradication of slavery. It also urges progressive movement towards universal health insurance, and for a quota of 40 per cent Haratine representation in constitutional and administrative bodies.

Anti-slavery activists came under particular pressure in 2012 when seven members of the anti-slavery organization IRA Mauritania were arrested with their leader after he burned religious texts at a protest.

At least one demonstrator for their release died in June, reportedly due to the effects of tear gas used by the police. The activists were provisionally released in September; however, they reportedly continued to receive threats.

The international analysts who highlighted Mauritania's advances in electing women to posts of authority have noted that cultural barriers can still make it difficult for them to speak out, advocate for change or make decisions publicly – all essential steps in truly empowering women.

In the face of this situation, in 2012 MRG began implementing a three-year project on behalf of Haratine women, working with civil society organizations to improve understanding of the rights of women and the multiple forms of discrimination against them to help ensure that their work addresses the specific needs of Haratine women. The project also aims to improve the leadership skills of Haratine women through projects and grants. The trainees will then be supported in outreach work in their wider community, to challenge gender stereotypes and foster girls' and women's leadership at the grassroots level.

It is hoped that efforts such as this will contribute to much-needed change at the grassroots level in Mauritania.

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