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Mauritania: One woman's struggle against modern slavery
Terre des hommes (Tdh) has been active in Mauritania since 1984, carrying out health and protection related projects for children (http://www.tdh.ch/en/countries/mauritania). In collaboration with the Association des Femmes Chefs de Familles (AFCF: http://afcf-rim.org/), the Foundation fights against the exploitation of young and small girls used as domestic servants (http://www.tdh.ch/en/news/mauritania-the-fight-against-child-domestic-labour). These young ‘housemaids’ are identified, listened to and supported in their social and professional reintegration.
Aminétou Ely, president of the AFCF, is recognised for her dedication to the defence of human rights and in particular, for her commitment to children exploited as household servants. Today, she counts herself among other women from civil society who fight so that others may survive and continue living. Distanced from any kind of unbridled feminism, she assumes and demands freedoms equal to those of men in all areas of life and is against all forms of injustice.
Aminétou Ely answers our questions:
1) In the cases that you have seen throughout your career, can you tell us why female child servants are most often victimised?
Young girls working as domestic servants, particularly those of a very young age (four years old, Fulani and Haratine girls) are neglected and often subject to all kinds of violence, including rape. They spend the night in places that are not safe, such as courtyards. This is the kind of situation that we see in large polygamous families (e.g. three or four wives and 15 to 20 children) where the father has no source of income and so the family lives in extreme poverty in the most disadvantaged areas.
2) What made you decide to fight tooth and nail for these girls? What was the reason for this?
From a pro-slavery family myself, I saw how they were treated and how the use of young girls as domestic servants is tantamount to slavery. When I was 11 years old, I freed some of these slaves from my family. The use of young girls as servants is a humiliating and discriminatory modern form of slavery where the victims are those from the poorest families. Those exploiting them are rich and give them no obvious benefits: they are badly paid, over-worked and given no social security or medical cover.
3) What are the greatest challenges that you face in your everyday work?
The fight against racism, the lifting of taboos, the lack of concern on the part of certain civil institutions, poor parenting, impunity, the lack of law enforcement and the reach of the law, the stigmatisation of the most vulnerable groups (descendants of slaves), the feudal and patriarchal mindset.
4) What is your dearest wish?
To one day see equality across the nation on all levels: ethnic groups and all strata of society with equal access to the justice system, an equitable distribution of the nation’s resources, recruitment and competitive professional exams, the adoption of our draft legislation on child labour, the end of child labour, particularly in relation to young girls, in a just state.5) Is it difficult for you, as a woman, to make yourself heard and be respected?
It is very difficult for a woman in Mauritania to be heard and respected. But we must have the courage to overcome these obstacles, to express ourselves and break taboos, to have the will to fight, have the conviction and the intellectual prowess, the determination, vision and the means to convince others.
6) What is the status of education in Mauritania?
Education is very important in Mauritania, but unfortunately, there is a high dropout rate from school since many parents cannot afford to buy their children the books and clothes that they need. A standard school uniform should put children from rich and poor families on an even footing. The lack of school meals, an adequate syllabus, the quality of teaching, the lack of classes on civic duty, citizenship and human rights represent real obstacles to overcome.
7) Are forced marriages commonplace?
Yes, in Mauritania, most girls are married before they are 15 years old, without their consent. This often leads to them dropping out of school, early pregnancies and separations resulting in a high divorce rate (42%).
8) Given the various testimonials on your organisation’s website, it would appear that men all too often escape prosecution. Is it difficult for justice to prevail?
In legal institutions and among the police, women are not listened to in preliminary enquiries. Only the testimony from men is taken into account. This leads to the automatic assumption that the woman, who is often accused of being out late at night, not covering her head or engaged in prostitution, is guilty. In proven cases of rape, backed up with a medical report, the man is thrown in prison but then released provisionally, which essentially means he is given impunity.
9) In an interview, you said that you received death threats after the trial of a girl that you supported. Are you afraid of reprisals? Is supporting and defending servant girls who are victims of violence a dangerous affair for you?
I received death threats in a case where the mistress of two girls kept as slaves was imprisoned. I have also been threatened by people guilty of rape and slavery. I am not scared of receiving death threats as I am convinced that the situation will change. I fight for the protection of young victimised girls and that is my job as an activist.
10) In collaboration with Tdh, what are you most proud of and what is your greatest achievement?
I welcome this partnership and the special support that it provides at this difficult time when the issue of household servants and slavery is taboo. Through this partnership with Tdh, we have managed to introduce the AFCF to a system of rights for the protection of children and form partnerships with institutions to which it was very difficult to gain access. Moreover, the AFCF has benefited from coaching and skills transfer through all stages of projects for the assistance, protection and reintegration of young female domestic servants who have been subjected to violence. This project is now assembling a large number of partners who want to get involved. People are beginning to understand the need to protect these girls from violence – a sense of awareness that must be maintained at all costs.
Interviewed in February, 2014.
The organisation fights against all forms of discrimination, violence and harmful practices against women (force-feeding, female genital mutilation, premature or forced marriages etc.). Further aims of the organisation include ensuring full equality with men, literacy, raising awareness and professional training for women.