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Curbing slavery in West Africa

By Onyi Sunday
17 June 2016   |   1:14 am
I work on slavery in West Africa mainly. The former slavery we were working on is called decent based slavery which is where people are literarily inherited by masters.


The global slavery index for 2016 shows that sub-Saharan Africa is home to 13.6% of the total amount of people living in modern day slavery, CNBC Africa’s Onyi Sunday spoke to Sarah Matthewson, Africa programme Director at Anti-Slavery International to explore ways to curb slavery in West Africa.

Mathewson:  I work on slavery in West Africa mainly. The former slavery we were working on is called decent based slavery which is where people are literarily inherited by masters. They are born into slavery and any children that they have are also born into slavery, so they are forced into domestic servitude, agricultural labor and it’s a lifetime of servitude for people.
From statistics, we do understand that Mauritius is leading when it comes to modern day slavery in Africa. According to the global trade index in 2016, Nigeria has more enslaved people than any country in the sub- Saharan Africa. Do we also have this inherited slavery in Nigeria?

MATHEWSON: Yes it’s true that lots of groups have a social status of slaves and a social status of nobles and that discrimination continues to operate till today. We have also worked on a practice known as the fifth wife practice in Northern Nigeria; People might also take a fifth wife who is like the slave wife. We have forced domestic work including child domestic work and child marriage. In Nigeria, we have also looked at the question of baby factories- people forced and hooked in reproductive slavery, we also have trafficking out of Nigeria; Nigeria is one of the main sourced countries for trafficking to Europe with thousands of people every year.

Let us understand what is happening in Mauritania, we do understand that two slave owners have been jailed. Do you see this recent development as turning things around for the better in that country?

MATHEWSON:  I was actually delighted to see the conviction; we have been working on that case. We have also identified a number of people in the last 18 months. We have 13 people come out of slavery and we hope that case is prosecuted as well. It was the first step. We hope to see more prosecution, stronger sentences, and more action from the government. There is still denial that slavery even exists at the highest level of government and that is a huge obstacle for us.

How easy do you think it is to tackle the issue of domestic slavery? In Nigeria for instance, it is normal for families to give their children to relatives and they end up becoming slaves until they are married. How do you think the government will come into this situation because it is something that has been enshrined into traditions and various cultures?

MATHEWSON:  That is definitely true. We have to work with a number of levels, the institutional level, to try to overcome the inequalities that are behind this system of slavery or forced servitude. We have to eradicate the extremes of wealth and poverty that we see everywhere in the world today. We have to overcome the culture of servitude for some and privileges for others; there is a lot of resistance to that, Obviously people have vested interest in having cheap labor, cheap domestic work, we have to make sure it is well regulated so that exploitation does not happen on the most vulnerable people.

If you think about what is happening in Northern Nigeria, So many children are displaced at the moment, while some of them might be adopted, some of them can’t go back to homes that don’t exist, how do you think this can be better managed and whose responsibility is it to protect this vulnerable ones especially the children?

MATHEWSON:  The responsibility always comes back to the government because it is the government’s role to protect the citizens but the communities can also be assisted to protect the citizens; form a protection committee to monitor the situation and the government and other international institutions can also give support to the communities in that respect  so that vulnerable children can be identified and monitored, and ensure that there are communication channels so that urgent actions can be taken if any fall prey to that situation.

What do we do in the situation where a family sells their own child, just like inherited slavery, a situation where the parents sell a child to pay a debt?  How do we begin to monitor that?

MATHEWSON:  I think there is a line to be drawn between people who are essentially in a very vulnerable situation, handling over a child to relatives where they may not know what the faith of that child will be, and there are obvious situations of pure trafficking where the child is exploited, so we have to make that distinction. In cases where poverty drives people to send their children away, there is a lot we can do in terms of education, awareness, support for families, campaigns to help people understand that children are often better protected when they stay with their parents. In trafficking situations, that is a crime and we need to have prosecution as a part of our response; although protection and prevention are also very important.

Statistics also believe that a quarter of the world’s slaves are children, while we also put the blame on the government, what role do parents play in the space?

MATHEWSON:  Parents have to assume responsibility for their children and they have to play a key role in protecting them. However, in the situation of Mauritania, there are parents of slaves who have little control of what happens to their children, they face extreme discrimination, they are subjected to forced labor themselves and if their masters come to take their children, there is little they can do. In Mauritania, we have seen in the past that some mothers of children were prosecuted. We would say that, that mother was not complacent and she was also a victim of those traditional slavery practices and she had very little control of that situation, so we would seek to avoid prosecution for people who are also exploited themselves.

Africa as a continent has had its own fair share of the slave trade era; we do understand that families have been separated due to slavery and colonialism, after that horrible era in Africa history, why do you think we still have case of slavery prevalent on the African continent today?

MATHEWSON:  In a situation of extreme poverty and extreme wealth, you are going to have a situation of exploitation and discrimination between people.  In general, Africa is a continent that has been very much exploited by the rest of the world, and it is structured in politics today. That is why we see so much trafficking out of the continent and the bringing of African labor over to Europe for example hasn’t ended, we see these practices within societies in other parts of the continent.