Mauritania is one of the last countries in the world where people are still born into hereditary slavery, which means they are literally owned by other people, and forced to work for masters their entire lives. People in slavery come from the Haratine ethnic group, historically enslaved by White Moors. They can be bought and sold, or given as gifts, and face a lifetime of exploitation and abuse. Rape of female slaves is common and their children also become slaves. They are Muslims, and many believe that it is Allah’s wish for them to be enslaved because they are told that their paradise is bound to their Master. In reality, Islam dictates that a Muslim cannot enslave a fellow Muslim. Since 2007 slavery has been criminalised in Mauritania but the law is not enforced and the government is reluctant to acknowledge the existence of the problem.
Skyra describes the sexual abuse she and others endured from the family that had kept her as a slave since birth.
We had no choice, as we were born to slave parents, we were slaves through them. For a long time they made us believe that we were created to live as slaves. That was the religion.
My family and I lived like animals, because they used us like objects ... The members of the master’s family did whatever they wanted with us. They made us have sexual relations with them however they wanted; when we resisted, we were beaten and tied up.
We truly believed it was the will of Allah and his prophet Muhammad. You can’t oppose religion. But, when our parents died, my brother started to doubt, because the ill-treatment we suffered was not in the Koran.
During our enslavement, we were mistreated, we girls were raped every day. We had no choice, we were powerless before our master. The slightest resistance was punished severely, and that traumatized us. You start to accept the situation as it is... For women it is more complicated [than for Haratine men] because naturally women are more weak and vulnerable. Men have more endurance, they take more of the physical strain, but women also undergo psychological strain on top of the physical. Like when they made me have sexual relations against my will, and I couldn’t say no... I was like his property.
You see that little boy there? He is the son of my old master. In fact, most of us women who were slaves, we have done that, either for the master, or for his brothers, or sometimes for his children, when they fancied a bit of fun.
As told to the Minority Rights Group International