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20 Percent of a Country Enslaved: A Cry for Mauritania

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Although he was born free, Biram Dah Abeid and his family know well the pain of slavery. Dah Abeid and his family are from the West African country of Mauritania. His father married a slave woman and they had two children, but the courts ruled that they could not live together without the slave master's permission. According to the courts, his father's wife was considered property, "just like [the slave master's] cow or their sheep." The judge went on to say that the couple's children did not have a father, only a " 'progenitor,' because slavery is transmitted through a mother's bloodline." Dah Abeid's father never reunited with his first wife, and the laws by which the court ruled are still upheld today.

These are not the only challenges to freedom that still exist in Dah Abeid's homeland. Buying and selling human beings, raping and castrating people simply because they are black, and supporting such practices with national law sounds unfathomable. Archaic. Terrifying.

And yet these very practices are ongoing and have been for years in Mauritania. While officially abolishing slavery in 1981, Mauritania is cited as having one of the highest rates of slavery in the world, with the U.S. Department of State estimating that up to 20% of the country's population is enslaved.

The rights of slaves and former slaves, known collectively as Haratin, are limited and largely ignored. Children do not get the same access to education as those of the ruling class of white Arab-Berber Moors and usually work from a very young age. As adults they are routinely beaten and do not make enough money to support their families. Some are even denied the right to get married and lack human dignities such as the ability to bury their children, who have been left outside to die.

Dah Abeid has seen many of these injustices throughout his lifetime. The grandchild of a slave, he has been fighting for the rights of the Haratin to the point of enduring government arrest and torture. He currently leads the Initiative for the Resurgence of the Abolitionist Movement (IRA), assisting slaves and former slaves in obtaining legal representation, advocacy, and survival. For his efforts, Dah Abeid won the prestigious UN Human Rights Award last year, with past recipients including Nelson Mandela, Jimmy Carter, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

The crimes Dah Abeid speaks of, and the lack of government intervention, is chilling. In a translated email interview, he explained that Mauritanian law follows a slave code which the Government views as "sacred and divine." The code encourages masters to castrate " 'handsome slaves' " in order to prevent slaves from having sex with the master's daughters. Such sexual relationships are deemed as "mixing 'pure blood' of the master with [the] 'impure blood' of the slave."

One castration victim that Dah Abeid has tried to help is the slave of a high ranking government official. Given his influential status, the slave owner is virtually untouchable and unlikely to ever face criminal charges.

The Mauritanian slave code also concludes that masters have a "protected and sacred right" to rape their slaves, because slaves are considered property. According to Dah Abeid, the victimized slave lacks any recourse.

Slavery was criminalized in 2007, but not one person had been prosecuted under its provisions three years later. In 2013 the government created an anti-slavery agency, but the agency director Hamdi Ould Mahjoub told the New York Times that there had been "no instances of the practice [of slavery]."

Dah Abeid, who houses, feeds, and helps mobilize former slaves, believes otherwise.

"The law on slavery in Mauritania and the recent changes are cosmetic," he says. "It is designed and meant to fool the international community. The Mauritanian Government is the first hurdle to ending slavery and the first to violate its own laws; it enacts laws that it does not enforce and does not support individuals or organizations... who want to have those laws enforced."

Dr. Zekeria Denn, a political science expert at the University of Nouakchott, concurs. Denn said in his research that the government of Mauritania has "never seriously addressed the issue of slavery...there is no evidence to suggest that practical steps have been taken to ensure its abolition in practice."

Dah Abeid says he cannot rest while so many remain in captivity. Running on a campaign to abolish slavery, he seeks to end exploitation of the Mauritanian people.

Since March, Dah Abeid has been on a pre-election tour of the country, but not without challenges. He says the government has jailed dozens of his supporters without cause and without charging them of any crimes.

Mauritania is currently under the leadership of General Ould Abdel Aziz, who took over the country through a military coup in 2008 and, following a controversial 2009 election,"handed power to himself." After the coup, Dah Abeid says critical issues of slavery and racism were "thrown under the rug."

Despite the President's efforts to thwart the abolitionist movement, Dah Abeid says he is committed to ending slavery in Mauritania. "The different regimes that have come and gone have...used slavery and discrimination to further divide and reign on masses of impoverished Mauritanians," he says. "[T]hat needs to stop."

The presidential campaign lasts until June 19 with the election scheduled for June 21.

Dah Abeid is optimistic. "The determination I see in [the Mauritanian] people is humbling and will keep me going until victory."