BAMAKO, MALI— Slavery is still practiced among some groups in Mali. Activists had made some gains in their fight to outlaw the custom until early 2012, when a Tuareg rebellion and subsequent military coup plunged the country into chaos. Now, as Mali prepares to elect its next president, activists say the time is right to push for a law banning the centuries-old practice.
Although slavery was prohibited by the Malian constitution of 1960, it was never formally criminalized in law. Soumaguel Oyahit, secretary-general of the human rights association, Temedt, and himself a member of Mali’s slave caste, said the practice continues in conservative religious communities and among ethnic groups, including the Tuareg.
“We are trying to prioritize the eradication of a tradition that we call descent-based slavery,” said Oyahit. “What this means is that across northern Mali and the Sahel, a child born to a woman who is a member of the slave caste, living in a family that has traditionally kept slaves, is itself condemned to being a slave. There is no law criminalizing this practice.”
Pursuing freedom, redress
Jim Wormington is a senior legal analyst with the American Bar Association's Rule of Law Initiative. He described how, in 2012, the ABA opened a legal clinic in the northern city of Gao providing advocacy support to subjugated Malians seeking freedom and redress.
“Certainly they described themselves as ‘slaves.’ They will say they have a 'master' whom they work for, often without pay, whether watching cattle or performing household tasks," he said. "People also described the violations they suffered... like, being beaten if they made a mistake. We’ve heard a number accounts of women who are raped, by their ‘masters’".
The clinic prepared cases against 18 slaveholders for crimes including assault and sexual offenses. Wormington said that while the coup occurred before the first case went to trial, the ABA continues to document slavery among internally displaced Malians.
“We’ve actually supported Temedt’s effort to draft that law for slavery itself to be clearly criminalized at the beginning of 2012. Advocating for the adoption of that law would be most appropriate after Mali’s elections, when there is again a government we can advocate to,” said Wormington.
Mali’s recent turmoil has concentrated the will of activists to eradicate slavery. Oyahit said Temedt has been lobbying the country's presidential candidates. “We wrote to all the candidates about our draft law,” he explained. “They know our 45,000 members are prepared to vote for any presidential candidate who will back our proposal.”
Sarah Mathewson, Africa program coordinator for Anti-Slavery International, believes 250,000 Malians may be living in slavery. She said persuading national leaders about the extent of the problem has always been a challenge.
“Even if it were a few thousand people, even if it were one person, it should be an urgent priority to emancipate people. How can Mali move forward to re-establish democratic systems, with all its citizens equal, engaged and participating in the progress of society if a significant number remain enslaved to others? I think that’s critical to address,” said Mathewson.
The fight is unlikely to end, however, even if a law is passed. Niger criminalized slavery in 2003 and Mauritania in 2007. In Mauritania, only one slave owner has since been prosecuted. Mathewson said the process is complicated by other factors too.
“There are strong economic interests in the slavery system, and strong interests in not upsetting the slave-owning classes who are often quite privileged elites with connections to government,” she said.
In Mauritania, the anti-slavery group, IRA Mauritanie, formed its own political party ahead of legislative elections expected in October. Temedt members look forward to achieving the same political acceptance. Mali’s recent conflict set their cause back years, they say, and now is the time to redouble the effort to end slavery, not just in Mali, but across the Sahel.