Post by: Katrina Sumner
Slavery still exists today. It’s a painful reality. Global estimates indicate that there are as many as forty million people living in various forms of exploitation known as modern slavery. This includes victims of forced labor, debt bondage, domestic servitude, human trafficking, child labor, forced marriage, and descent-based slavery.
Given America’s history with descent-based or chattel slavery in which people were classified as slaves at birth, treated as property, and denied human rights, it is particularly difficult to know that there are still places in the world today where people are born into hereditary slavery. They are treated as property and subjected to sexual and physical abuse because their ancestors were and the same fate befalls their children.
While slavery has been legally abolished everywhere, it has yet to be eradicated according to the UN Special Rapporteur on Contemporary Forms of Slavery, Including its Causes and Consequences. For example, in September 2020, the Special Rapporteur called on Mali to finally end slavery after four men who were regarded as having been born as slaves were beaten to death. The situation in Mali illustrates the problem. The country outlawed slavery in 1905 and the Malian Penal Code lists slavery as a crime against humanity. Yet, over one hundred years later, people are still trapped in this system. This situation, which is not unique to Mali, demonstrates the need not only for additional legislation criminalizing slavery, but for a willingness to punish those who perpetrate it on others.
As another example, Mauritania was the last nation to abolish slavery, which it did in 1981. However, it did not pass a law criminalizing the practice until 2007. Though the Global Slavery Index for 2018 estimates that 90,000 people in Mauritania are living as slaves, there have only been a few prosecutions for the practice.
One Mauritanian woman who escaped slavery with the help of an anti-slavery organization reported how one of her children was killed. She had become pregnant with this child after being raped by her master. One day, she was not allowed to take her baby with her to the field. The master said that she would work faster without the child on her back. When she returned, she found that her baby girl had been left out in the hot sun where the child died and was being eaten by ants. The mother asked if she could take a break to bury her baby, but she was told to get back to work. Later that day, she dug a shallow grave and buried her. Two of her other girls are the children of the master’s oldest son who threatened to behead her if she told anyone they were his kids. When she was sent to work for another family, the new master forced her young daughter to marry him and raped her and her daughter at gunpoint. Thankfully, both she and her daughter are free today and she has been brave enough to tell her story to the world. This is the plight of many who continue to live in slavery.
Despite the fact that an estimated 10%-20% of the population lives in slavery, Mauritanian officials often deny that slavery still exists. Human rights defenders are arbitrarily jailed. There are even reports that some enslaved children who have escaped and gone to the police for help have been returned to their masters. Despite these abuses, Mauritania joined the UN Human Rights Council in February 2020. The issue of slavery is one that highlights the critical service provided by human rights and humanitarian organizations. These organizations are working to raise awareness about modern slavery around the world. They are helping people gain freedom and providing economic and educational assistance. They are pressing for additional legislation and seeking justice for victims. May their efforts hasten the eradication of descent-based slavery and help stem the tide of other modern forms of exploitation.
This post was written by a Center for Global Justice Student Staff member. The views expressed in this post do not necessarily reflect those of Regent University, Regent Law School, or the Center for Global Justice.