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Tied Down by Mali’s Slave Mentality

The internal African slave trade was officially abolished in colonial Mali in 1905. But a form of slavery – called “descent-based slavery” – continues today. This is when “slave status” is ascribed to a person, based on their ancestors having allegedly been enslaved by elite slave-owning families. The practice is most prevalent among Mali’s nomadic Tuareg and Fulani communities in Central and Northern Mali, but exists in every region of Mali. It is also present in other Sahel countries, including Niger, Mauritania, Chad, Sudan, and Senegal. In 2020 four activists campaigning against the practice were murdered in Kayes, western Mali, leading to large demonstrations. Victims of descent-based slavery face discrimination and abuse and can be forced to work without pay. If they confront their “owners”, they risk being excluded from accessing basic needs, such as water, land or goods. There is no dedicated law criminalising descent-based slavery in Mali, unlike neighbouring Niger and Mauritania. Because of this lack of a protective legal framework, victims of descent-based slavery often have little choice but to escape to more ‘hospitable’ areas. This displacement is frequently caused by conflict over extreme forms of exclusion or discrimination – in the present and in the past. But such displacements have largely been invisible.