Aïcha Fall: What it’s like to be a woman – and a slave – in Mauritania
- 31 July 2013
Last July we had the pleasure of welcoming Aïcha Fall, representative of the Mauritanian organisation SOS-Esclaves, to our offices in France. Aïcha coordinated her organisation’s activities within the FAM programme (Former et Agir en Mauritanie pour les droits des femmes)*, a programme headed up by AEDH between 2010 et 2012 with support from the European Union and CCFD-Terre Solidaire.
In Mauritania, traditional forms of slavery are still widely used, and affect women in particular. Aïcha Fall paints us a picture of the current practices in the country, where numerous different communities live together.
What is the state of slavery today in Mauritania ?
Aïcha Fall: A number of communities live side-by-side in Mauritania – each of whom see slavery differently. Slavery practiced by the Moorish community, the most widespread, used to take horrible forms. It is now disappearing today due to the fact that a number of organisations are speaking out about it, supporting and trying to sensitise people who have been enslaved. These people have the tendency to see their situation as normal. In Mauritania, there’s something of a ‘willing submission’ due to a strong religious instrumentalisation of slavery.
Think of the saying, ‘for the slave, paradise is beneath the feet of his master’— a good Muslim slave must obey his master and not revolt if he hopes eventually to find himself in paradise. In certain communities, the slave subject to discrimination that carries on beyond his death: there are different cemeteries for masters and for slaves. Whatever community he belongs to, the slave is marginalised and treated like an object to be bought and sold, whose value is less than that of a cow.
Owing to pressure from human rights organisations like SOS-Esclaves, there has been some progress towards the eradication of slavery in Mauritania. At the same time though, there are plenty of gaps in current legislation. The adoption of a law criminalising slavery in 2007 by the Mauritanian parliament is certainly a step forward, but it doesn’t say anything about compensation for the slave, who can find himself deprived of his means to live. That’s why we advocate the reinsertion of slaves into Mauritanian society.
What is life like for women and children who are enslaved?
AF: Within the Moorish community, slavery is passed down on the mother’s side: it is therefore women who suffer most. People use the female slave for many things: they sometimes exchange her for the labour of a male slave from another region or from another family, or use her as an object of pleasure.
Since slaves are most often poor, children are often forced to work in order to help provide for the family. According to Mauritanian law, all children have the right to go to school – but unlike the master’s children, the slave child is also obligated to work. When his tasks need to be completed, he must leave school to serve his master, which explains the low rates of success for enslaved children in the school system.
What is SOS-Esclaves trying to do?
AF: In general, SOS-Esclaves aims to sensitise the Mauritanian community to the roots of slavery and to explain why it’s a crime against humanity. We accompany people who are the victims of slavery in the steps of defending their rights and liberties within Mauritanian law. We also provide legal assistance and put these people in contact with national institutions that can get support for them.
Female slaves must become integrated into the economy and the community. It’s for this reason that SOS-Esclaves opened a professional training centre, where formerly enslaved women learn skills like dyeing and colouring, sewing or hairdressing. Once trained, these women still have a hard time starting up a business, so we developed a support programme that allows these women to do so through microcredit. The programme has offered support to about thirty women up to the present.
Do you feel like people’s views of slavery are changing in Mauritania?
AF: Because there’s now a law in force that punishes slavery with fines and prison sentences, people have been changing the way they talk about it. Today, we hear people say that slavery in Mauritania is a breach of human rights, that it’s unfounded and in no way imposed by religion. Whether or not these people are sincere, the simple fact that they admit that there is no justification for this kind of domination, and that victims are now hearing it from their mouths – for me, that means a lot.
* For more information, visit www.programmefam.fr