Access to justice and cultural change in Mauritania

Said and Yarg were born into slavery. After receiving assistance through a programme supported by the United Nations Trust Fund on Contemporary Forms of Slavery, they were able to attend school and now want to defend other victims of slavery. © Minority Rights Group International

A rigid caste system is still present in Mauritania. The Haratine, or Black Moors, comprise a significant part of Mauritania’s population and suffer disenfranchisement and exclusion based on their membership in the “slave caste.”

Brothers Said and Yarg were born into slavery under this caste system, inheriting this status from their mother.

Said and Yarg were denied access to education and were stigmatized within their household.

“When referring to me, everyone would say ‘Said, the slave of this family.’ This hurt me. I questioned why I wasn’t allowed to play football like the other children,” Said explained.

Instead, they were forced to work full days. At first, they completed tasks around the house. Then, when they were older, they spent days in the hot sun tending to camels. The boys were frequently subjected to beatings. They never had a day off.

In 2011, when Said was 11 years old and Yarg was eight, they managed to escape. Minority Rights Group International hired a lawyer to represent them.

In November 2011, Said and Yarg’s master was found guilty under Mauritania’s 2007 anti-slavery law, which makes the practice of slavery a criminal offence.

“We’ve been waiting a long time and our lives are very different. We are proud because we are free. We feel like we are people now,” said Said. Both boys were able to attend school and have ambitions to defend other victims of slavery.

Access to justice for those formerly enslaved

In 1981, Mauritania became the last country to abolish slavery, but it only became a criminal offence in the country in 2007.

In this context, the work of Minority Rights Group International and its partner organization, SOS-Enclaves, has been groundbreaking. The 2011 case of Said and Yarg was the first successful prosecution under the 2007 law criminalizing slavery. Since then, encouraging progress was made, including the adoption by the Government of a circular relating to the prosecution of slavery in 2021. Several cases of slavery recorded since 2007 were heard by a specialized court, which should lead to the conviction of perpetrators of slavery-like practice, a significant renewal of political will on the part of the Mauritanian State.

With the support of the United Nations Voluntary Trust Fund on Contemporary Forms of Slavery, Minority Rights Group International has provided crucial information leading to the prosecution of dozens of slavery cases and engaged with domestic, regional and international mechanisms to achieve outcomes.

SOS-Enclaves also works to provide slavery survivors with social support, enabling them to obtain the documentation they need to access services and for children to go to school.

There is far more work to be done, in particular ensuring that the sentences slave owners receive are sufficient. Despite many challenges, Minority Rights International is working to create cultural change and eradicate slavery in Mauritania.

Minority Rights International, in partnership with SOS-Enclaves, received its first grant from the United Nations Voluntary Trust Fund on Contemporary Forms of Slavery in 2011.

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