By Marissa Brescia, Cara Vileno on September 13, 2017
Mauritania, a geographically large country located just across the Atlantic from Washington, DC, is a country rich in history and traditions. More than three times the size of New Mexico, its desert landscape is home to approximately four million people. Landing in the capital of Nouakchott to visit two foreign assistance programs supported by our bureau, the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor (DRL), we quickly understood that Mauritania’s past is very present in how its people live today. We spent the following week learning more about the nature of the country’s highly complex ethno-racial society and history, and how active civil society groups are bravely advocating for the rights of enslaved individuals and other marginalized populations.
DRL’s mandate is to monitor and promote human rights and democracy worldwide. In Mauritania, this means supporting work that seeks to combat the issue of hereditary slavery. According to the Department of State’s 2017 Trafficking in Persons Report: “Adults and children from traditional slave castes in the Black Moor and Afro-Mauritanian communities are subjected to hereditary slavery practices rooted in ancestral master-slave relationships, where they are often forced to work without pay as cattle herders and domestic servants.” DRL-funded programs support local civil society efforts to combat these practices by working to obtain legal identity documents for stateless and marginalized groups, providing skills and opportunities to help people emerging from slavery achieve socio-economic independence, and building the capacity of local journalists to raise awareness of the issue.
In Nouakchott, we met with DRL partners that have been working for decades to reach people in slavery and provide them with support and advocate for the Mauritanian government to provide comprehensive protective services for victims and prosecute perpetrators. We also met with project beneficiaries that had left behind years of servitude and exploitation and are now independent and able to earn a living that supports their entire family.
During our trip we also visited Rosso, a town three hours south of the capital on the border with Senegal; it is reachable through one poorly paved road that winds through the desert. There, we heard directly from stateless people and their advocates about some of the many challenges they face – including land ownership issues and obstacles regarding registering for identity documents with the government. Without these documents, they are prohibited from registering any births, deaths or marriages and cannot travel beyond their home villages or access state support programs. In addition, their children are unable to take government exams necessary to advance in school.
Since its independence in 1960, Mauritania and the United States have enjoyed a strong partnership based on shared interests and mutual respect. Thanks to this robust and long-lasting relationship, DRL is able to support programs in Mauritania that advance human rights and good governance. We look forward to continued engagement with the vibrant civil society in Mauritania with the ultimate goal of eradicating slavery and promoting equal rights and economic opportunity in the country.
About the Authors: Marissa Brescia and Cara Vileno are Program Officers in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor’s Office of Global Programs at the U.S. Department of State.