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With preparations underway to commemorate the bicentenary of the so-called Parliamentary abolition of chattel slavery in Britain, It could be said in selected circles, that ‘slavery’ is one of this year’s buzzwords, and will be constantly bandied about in the news and media.  The British public have also been recently invited to openly debate on whether or not, from whose perspective, and indeed how the subject of slavery should be permanently cemented in schools as a part of the English curriculum, even though it is the government’s full intention for it to be implemented by September 2008.

Yet from our comfortable armchairs, in front of our TV’s furnished with too many channel choices, we could be lulled into the belief that the institution of slavery has been buried in the annuals of history.  We think of slavery as being only associated with shackles, chains, and auction blocks, with slave ships on the middle passage, or perhaps with TV characters such as Kunta Kinte in Roots - which make us feel uncomfortable for a while - but we sigh with the relief that it does not touch our comfortable lives in the West.  We’re all okay now – aren’t we?  Or are we lulled into a false ideology?  For across the globe there are countless cases of human trafficking, sex trafficking, debt bondage, enforced labour, and enslavement, which include the buying and selling of persons.

These ‘modern day’ forms of slavery, though pernicious in their own merits, should at this point be made clearly distinct from what we know as ‘old,’ chattel slavery.  The Afrikan Holocaust or Maangamizi, (as repatriationists prefer it described), involved the total devastation of a continent, which included the forced and brutal enslavement of millions of Afrikans, the desecration of their homelands, and centuries of subjugation and degradation.  What makes the Maangamizi totally unique from modern day forms is that it was sanctioned by law.  For example, if an enslaved person escapes his captor today, by law he is free; but during the Afrikan Holocaust escaped slaves who were caught were not.  They were either returned to their ‘masters,’ suffered torture, or were put to death.  Many would argue that the Maangamizi has not ended, but has merely taken on different guises.

The modern day use of slavery in Mauritania both pre-dates and post-dates the Atlantic slave system, where, according to a report by Dr. Jacobs in the News Tribune (2001), an estimated 300,000 descendants are still chattel slaves – nearly half the population.  Situated in western Afrika, Mauritania mixes Arabs and Berbers (known as Beydanes – white men) from the north, and blacks from the south (mainly the Tukor, Fulani, and Wolof peoples), which have been brought to the north after being captured by raiding Arab/Berbers.

The Koran forbids slavery, but here race outranks religion, and thus religion is used as one of the means to perpetuate slavery.  Slavery has been abolished three times in the country’s modern history.  The first in 1905, and the last in 1980 by President Khouna Ould Haidallah’s government, but it proved to be nothing but a basic exercise in PR.  Multiple reports from various Non Governmental Organisations (NGO’s) suggest that slavery takes many forms.  An unknown number of boys (Tahibs) - almost exclusively from Puular tribes - are forced to beg in the streets for some twelve hours a day as part of a ‘work study’ arrangement by ‘religious teachers,’ or Marabouts, who claim to offer religious instruction in exchange.  Girls are trafficked to Mali for domestic servitude and according to the report Human Trafficking and Modern Day Slavery, they are subjected to ‘slavery-related practices rooted in ancestral master-slave relationships in isolated parts of the country where a barter economy exists.’  Thus, in this culture the buy/sell aspects of slavery have moved from the auction blocks of old, to systems where persons are bartered for in the same way as any item in a market.

A secret organization named EL HOR was formed in 1978 to combat slavery and advance the rights of freed slaves (Haratines), but an uprising in the 1980’s forced the group underground.  Now Beydane tribes do not barter openly, but make discreet arrangements for the buying and selling of slaves amongst themselves where transactions are highly mobile, and culturally encoded.  The trade is the same, only the semantics have changed, as various euphemisms are utilized to describe their slaves, such as ‘my student,’ ‘domestic help,’ or ‘present’ – knowing full well that the person in question is a ‘present’ for life.

In India, the second most populous country in the world where an estimated 400 million inhabitants are children under 18, modern slavery takes on many guises.  It is a source, transit and destination country for men, women and children to be trafficked for the use of forced or bonded labour and commercial sexual exploitation.  Industrial manufacturers send agents to poor or Dalit communities to buy steal or con communities out of their children, with the promise of work and their safe return.  The employers isolate the children who become financially indebted to them, resulting in a bondage that can never be repaid.  Thus the ‘employee’ is a slave for life – sometimes beyond life – as it is a form of slavery that often is generational.  A report taken from an ABC News expose highlights the plight of children who are forced to work for carpet manufacturers - ‘small fingers make a better grade carpet.’  They are made to work all night, and are beaten when they stop.  They sleep on the floor with scores of other children who share the same plight, never going to school, and when their hands become too big it is cheaper to simply cast them onto the street.  These children commonly never return home; as they do not know from which village they originated.

It is also documented that India may have well in excess of half a million children in brothels – more than in any other country in the world.  Children are kidnapped, drugged and offered jobs as maids, then sold into slavery where ‘often the only escape is dying of AIDS.'  In an interview with Indian documentary maker Ruchira Gupta on Satya’s Social Justice website, Gupta recalls encountering many villages on her way to Nepal that were devoid of women between the ages of 14-45.  It transpired that it was the result of a highly profitable trade in sex trafficking, which grosses Rs 185 million per day, and Rs 370 billion per year in India.

The chain would begin with an ‘uncle’ or family friend who would pay the child’s family perhaps $30 for her.  (Girl discrimination in this culture is also a factor in this).  She is taken cross-country to a border guard who also takes a payoff.  The girl is then transported to Bombay, to the brothel madam who buys the girl for between $50 and $100.  Landlords who own the brothel, the girls’ moneylenders and finally the customers complete the chain that keep these girls, some as young as 7, permanently enslaved.  Children are also born into prostitution, and Gupta observed how these girls become institutionalised into slavery; “[they] are locked up forever… they have to sexualize their persona.  They can’t be thinking people.  They don’t know that there is any other use for their bodies.”

Sudan’s slavery is manifest mainly as a result of its civil wars, and has an estimated 4 million displaced people as a consequence.  Young boys are trafficked to the Middle East, particularly Qatar, for use as camel jockeys.  Young girls are forced into domestic servitude and sexual exploitation. Children were once kidnapped and forcibily conscripted into the various rebel armies scattered throughout South Sudan in the ongoing war against Uganda, and the conflict in Darfur.  In the turmoil, thousands of children are raped, brutalized, drugged, and forced into conflict performing unspeakable violence.  For some boys, slavery systems become ingrained and are used by them as a means of survival.  It is estimated that Northern Ugandan Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) has kidnapped more than 20,000 Ugandan children “to be sex slaves, pack animals or soldiers.”

Despite restrictions all over the world about its illegalities, the horrors of slavery’s continuous vortex remain the same.  In spite of the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) stating that “no one should be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms,” the world still appears to be one, large plantation.  Wherever this is greed and envy, or a lust for power, riches and control, there will be empires to be built, systems of domination to be maintained, and conflict, exploitation, and enslavement of peoples around the world.  The elimination of this evil could prove to be the greatest battle the world has ever seen.

1st March 2007
Modern Day Forms of Slavery
By Jaye Williamson