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Analysts Debate Mauritanian Anti-Slavery Proposal


In the West African country Mauritania, the newly elected government is debating a proposed law that would criminalize slavery by up to 10 years in prison and thousands of dollars in fines. Even though it is already illegal to own a slave, activists say some blacks are still victims of slavery-like practices. But analysts say criminalizing slavery is not enough to end it. Phuong Tran has more from the east Mauritanian village, Nema.

Last month Hadouma traveled almost 1,500 kilometers from the capital to her home village, Bassikinu. She says since childhood she worked for a family that abused her. She says she fled seven years ago.

She says her mother and grandmother also worked as slaves for this family.

"I ran away because I was so tired of doing all the work for my master and his neighbors. My daughters were taken from me and split up to work for different family members," she said.

Hadouma does not say who the father of her four girls is. But she adds she had sex with, as she calls him, her master. She says he kept her apart from her daughters.

"I sometimes saw my daughters when I went to collect water, but I could not talk to them," she recalled.

Hadouma says she had been too scared to confront the man to ask for her daughters, but she says the national presidential campaign, earlier this year, made her realize she had the right.

A number of the candidates, including current President Sidi Mohamed Ould Cheikh
Abdallahi, promised to end slavery.

President Abdallahi says the proposed law that would criminalize slavery practices plus previous legislation is the most the government can do through lawmaking to fight slavery.

But Boubacar Messaoud, director of the Mauritanian slave abolition group SOS Esclaves, says this is not enough.

Messaoud says the current proposal does not specify contemporary aspects of slavery, such as forced marriage, indentured labor or debt bondage. He says 10 years of prison is inadequate.

Last month, Messaoud accompanied Hadouma while she looked for her daughters.

He says village police helped her find one daughter, before they ran out of gas.

Messaoud says the daughter they found says the family she works for does not treat her badly and she will remain there.

He says the woman is still looking for her other three daughters.

Bernard Freamon, an Islamic legal researcher at Yale University, says slavery will continue even with the new law if there is no strict enforcement.

"The legitimacy of a law like that is going to be undermined, if the people charged with enforcing the law perceive it as something just designed to make people in the human rights community feel better," he noted.

Freamon says some Muslims wrongly interpret the Koran to justify slavery. He says slavery will end only when religious leaders publicly denounce slavery.

"It will disappear because each of the scholars will go back to their mosques, their local imams [local religious leaders]," he added. "They will issue an edict that will be very persuasive and authoritative in terms of the local Muslims in that community."

Freamon adds modern day slavery will also exist as long as there are people desperate for food, health care and housing.

President Abdallahi says his government wants to single out people who have been victims of slavery for special economic help. He does not specify how the government will pursue what he calls positive discrimination.

Mauritania's lawmakers are expected to vote soon on the anti-slavery legislation.

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