SOS Esclaves (SOS Slaves), a Mauritanian NGO run by the son of slaves, received this year’s Anti Slavery International Award.
“I, for my part, together with a number of my friends realized that slavery was unjust, and that we could not accept the traditional law of Mauritanian society”, says Boubacar Messaoud, the co-founder of SOS Esclaves at the London ceremony where he was given the 2009 Anti Slavery International award, “Consequently, I consider myself a free and independent man and refuse to accept this law that traditional Mauritanian society has forced on me since birth.” In 1995 Boubacar, the son of a slave father, came together with Abdel Nasser Ould Othman Yessa, a former slave owner, to set up SOS Esclaves.
Since its foundation, SOS Esclaves has been at the forefront of the movement to criminalize slavery in Mauritania, leading the campaign to shape public policy to prohibit and punish slavery. Anti-Slavery International said the award was given in recognition of SOS Esclaves’ achievements in helping bring about the criminalization of slavery in Mauritania two years ago.
Alongside lobbying over the past decade, SOS Esclaves has been providing assistance to hundreds of people escaping slavery. SOS Esclaves’ local branches throughout the country offer food and shelter to people fleeing slavery, and assist former slaves to find work and accommodation. They also provide legal assistance, and counseling to help them overcome the trauma of the experience of slavery.
SOS Esclaves also addresses the discrimination and social prejudice that underpins slavery. They campaign to have equal access to civil and political— as well as social and economic— rights for those affected and stigmatized by slavery.
Slavery was officially abolished in Mauritania in 1981, and criminalized 26 years after its abolition. During those years, successive military governments continued to deny and ignore slavery. The state-run media frequently broadcasted reports to tell Mauritanians not to associate themselves with SOS Esclaves, and the oppression of those who tried to fight slavery forced many activists to live in exile. Others, who stayed and worked semi-underground, have been harassed, threatened, intimidated, ridiculed, imprisoned, and have risked torture and death for speaking openly about slavery.
Boubacar Messaoud, the President of SOS Esclaves, has been imprisoned on three occasions. In 1981 he was arrested and held for three months for denouncing slavery. In 1998 he was arrested, along with four other members of SOS Esclaves, for giving an interview about slavery on a French-language television program. They were all sentenced to 13 months in prison but were later released following concerted action by the international community.
Their lack of official recognition has also meant that members of SOS Esclaves have carried out their courageous work with extremely limited human and financial resources, relying on voluntary work by its members.
Finally, in April 2005 the Mauritanian Government allowed SOS Esclaves to register as an official Non-Governmental Organization and campaign openly for an end to slavery. Following the military coup in August 2005, SOS Esclaves started engaging with the newly formed transitional government and civil society groups to build a coalition to end slavery. Two years later, their efforts triumphed in the official recognition of SOS.
SOS Esclaves is now the leading anti-slavery organization in Mauritania, the last country in the world to officially abolish slavery. It has over 150 members across the country fighting against slavery, exposing the realities of the practice, challenging its widespread acceptance and pushing the cause forward in an environment where political instability continues to threaten the advancement and commitment towards the eradication of slavery.
Photo of Boubacar Messaoud, President of SOS Esclaves, courtesy of www.antislavery.org