African 'slaves' in the Gulf, but the situation is worse at home

In Mauritania one in every 25 people is a slave, and in The Gambia more than 60,000 children are vulnerable to modern bondage.

MALAGASY mother Solange left the island in 2013, eager to work as a domestic servant in Saudi Arabia and earn a better living for her family. Less than a year later she was dead, her body flown home to a husband asking questions about her slave-like work conditions in the Middle East.

Her death was attributed to a heart attack and “the will of God”, according to Saudi authorities. There are estimates that at least 35 women have died in similar circumstances, though no official figure exists.

Horror in Middle East

Solange is one of many women from Africa who face horrific working conditions while earning a pittance, having travelled to the Middle East through recruitment agencies. A recent International Labour Organisation report on Ethiopia showed a lot of trafficking of Ethiopians to the Middle East and Sudan.

Typically, recruitment agencies enlist women from poorer countries and take a cut of their pay. A family in the Gulf pays out about $3,400 to hire a maid, though some of these employees receive as little as $200 a month. The ILO believes families save around $8bn a year by cheating their maids out of their salaries.

But the situation on the continent is equally horrific.

In sub-Saharan Africa many of the countries have roughly 0.7% of the population enslaved - or one in every 140 people. According to the Global Slavery Index - which provides a ranking of 162 countries around the world, based on a combined measure of three factors: estimated prevalence of modern slavery by population, a measure of child marriage, and a measure of human trafficking in and out of a country - the legacies of the transatlantic slave trade and European colonialism are still playing out in the region.

Mauritania worst offender

Of the top ten countries where you are most likely to be enslaved in Africa, nine are in Western Africa and the worst perpetrator is Mauritania. Although this large northwestern African nation has tried three times to outlaw slavery within its borders, it is so commons that it is normal. The report estimates that 4% of Mauritania is enslaved – that’s one in every 25 people.

The slavery that occurs in Mauritania is prevalent in rural and urban areas and primarily takes the form of chattel slavery, where adults and children in slavery are the full property of their masters who exercise total ownership over them and their descendants. The status as a slave is passed down through the generations from people originally captured during historical raids by the slave-owning groups. 

To ensure people accept their slavery, indoctrination is used with understandings of race and class, as well as some religious teachings being used to justify slavery. Without access to education or alternative means of subsistence, many believe that it is God’s wish for them to be slaves. As most people in slavery are kept illiterate and uneducated, they are unaware of the fact that according to Islamic law, a Muslim cannot enslave a fellow Muslim.

Human trafficking

This situation in Benin and Cote d’Ivoire is different in that the slavery involves mainly women and children who are trafficked internally or from abroad for the purpose of sexual exploitation, domestic work or forced labour.  Children are trafficked into Benin from Niger, Togo, Burkina Faso and Nigeria, and some women from other parts of Africa are trafficked through Benin, mostly en route to Europe. 

The majority of victims are children who end up in situations of forced labour in agriculture, mining, fishing, construction and domestic work. Children are also forced into work as street vendors and shoe-shiners. In the Gambia, the children are predominantly used as street beggars or almudos. UNICEF estimates that there are more than 60,000 children in the Gambia that are vulnerable to modern slavery, including orphans and other street children.

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