While the world trains its eyes on Syria, human rights activists are trying to put an end to the horrific practice of modern-day slavery in Mauritania, a coastal country on the western coast of the Sahara desert.
After years of denying slavery existed, the Mauritanian government only recently outlawed the practice in 2007. Human rights advocates argue the country’s allies in the west are turning a blind eye to the horrendous practice of forced labor and abuse because of the African nation’s importance in the fight against terrorist organizations like al-Qaida.
In July, 45-year-old Omar Djibi Sow escaped after 40 years of servitude, a fact activists claim the government has been trying to cover up. Black Women and girls are particularly in peril in Mauritania. Anti-slavery activist say many Black Mauritanian women are forced into “slavery-like” relationships and made to have sex with male relatives, including their brothers, fathers, and sons.
The UN special rapporteur on racism, Mutuma Ruteere, told the Guardian that generations of people, particularly women and girls, were still living with families in a “slavery-like” relationship, and were being forced into sex with male relatives, in some cases with their fathers.
“You have situations where people still live with and are working for certain families, and where women are forced to have sexual relations with family members – fathers and sons,” said Ruteere, speaking from Kenya. “And there are situations where children, particularly the girls who are the products of those relations, are then forced to have sexual relations with the same family members.”
“This kind of relationship is going on over generations. There is a lot of sexual violence against these women and girls, I met individuals who are subjected to this. It’s a situation that is slavery-like.”
According to the Guardian, one pending court cases accuses a man of enslaving a woman and her nine children, which he “inherited” from his family.
While the government continues to deny the practice exists, Anti-slavery activist Saidou Wane blames the international community for turning a blind eye to the atrocities in Mauritania.
“Even though the UN acknowledges ‘slavery-like practices’, it is frustrating that they will not come out and just speak the truth, that slavery exists in Mauritania,” Wane said. “No one wants to upset the government, everybody is being politically correct. But the people know what is really happening, and little by little they are starting to rise up against it.”
Although slavery has been outlawed since 2007, UN special reporter on racism, Mutuma Ruteere says Black Mauritanians still receive little protection under the law.
“There are several cases that have been brought by individuals who are living under slavery-like conditions, and either the cases took too long, or the sentences are too light, the individuals are being released after a short time even after a conviction,” said Ruteere. “People feel that the justice system is not working for the victims.”