A Son of Slaves Still Fights For Human Rights

The campaign to abolish slavery in the U.S. might be over, but globally the problem persists. In Mali, one descendant of servitude is taking up the fight to help others become free.

While slavery was abolished in Mali after independence from the French in 1960, there are still more than 800,000 victims of slave cast identity, which means their status as slaves is passed down from their parents. Call it slavery by inheritance. The reason? There is no law formally forbidding the institution. The practice of slavery has never been officially criminalized.

It's estimated that nearly a quarter of a million free-born people are still under direct control of their “masters.” These modern day slaves cook, clean, fetch water, and more, but are unable to break free from the shackles of imposed servitude. They're beaten and denied payment for countless hours of intensive labor, and this stubborn caste system denies them rights to an education and other basic human rights.

This, of course, has wide-ranging social, economic, cultural and political complications.

Ibrahim Ag Idbaltanat, a descendent of slaves himself, born to a black Tuareg family in northeastern Mali, has been championing human rights and equity since the late 1970s, after becoming aware of injustices against families of slave descent by traditional slave masters, including physical violence and the confiscation of both land and herds of cattle. In 1987, Ag Idbaltanat founded the citizen sector organization GARI to champion equal rights for all. Six years ago, in 2006, he founded Temedt to continue his fight against discrimination and to redfine what it means to be Tuareg; Ag Ilbaltanat continues to provide legal support to victims of slavery and lobby for legal reform and socio-political stability.

Ag Idbaltanat, an Ashoka Fellow, and his human rights organization (which means "solidarity" in Tamasheq, the language spoken by Tuareg Berbers) received the 2012 Anti-Slavery Award in London a few weeks ago for their “outstanding dedication and groundbreaking work towards ending slavery in Mali.” Anti-Slavery International has recognized one brave individual or organization that personifies the fight against slavery every year since 1991.

"We believe we are the patriots to talk about a central problem in Mali,” said Ag Idbaltanat. "It is something that pervades society, it has an impact on democracy, it excludes people from basic services and it is a factor in the conflict now.

"In a society where slavery exists, there is no justice and the law of the strongest prevails. Where there is slavery, there is stratification of society, subdivisions, frustration and tension. The state pits different groups against each other and the Islamists exploit the frustration against the feudal system."

“It is with great emotion that I extend my deepest thanks and those of Temedt to the organization that has long pioneered the global fight against slavery, Anti-Slavery International,” Ag Idbaltanat said during his acceptance speech. “It has chosen to give its prestigious award to a ‘Bellah’—as we call the people of slave descent in Mali. This sends a strong message to all Malians, and to Temedt members in particular.

"The slave population is already defenseless; it will become even more so as the conflict intensifies,” Ag Idbaltanat told The Guardian.We are like the straw that will be trampled underfoot when elephants fight.”

Despite the obvious dangers, particularly with increased attention as an anti-slavery activist and a challenger to dominant slave-owning groups who are looking to settled “old scores," Ag Idbaltanat, Temedt and its 30,000 members believe in his vision for nation building and regional change in North Africa. The group encourages public dialogue about slavery by inviting government officials, representatives from citizen sector and white Tuareg leaders to participate in community meetings and public forums. Temedt's events are highly publicized, which pressures even the most reluctant community members to participate in constructive discussion.

In addition to these forums, Temedt has opened field offices across the country, which serve to peacefully disrupt Mali's discriminatory socio-political system. Black Tuareg communities are supported in obtaining property rights, among the greatest assets of the world's poor, and are offered access to schooling and microcredit programs, which help them reach their full potential through economic development. Ad Idbaltanat trusts in his collaborative approach to provide defenseless Temedt members and other citizens with protection, particularly in light of the rebellion in northern Mali, led by white Tuareg separatists with ties to Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.

Temedt's programming and increasing political clout aren't a cure for all the evils in war-torn Mali, but they're a start to a movement to finally criminalize the practice of slavery in the country.

“In Mali, the belief that human beings are not equal is deeply ingrained, almost a cultural value,” Ag Idbaltanat said. “Deconstructing such ideas and beliefs requires a great deal of perseverance and self-sacrifice.”

This story, written by John Converse Townsend, was originally published on Change in the Making, Ashoka's channel on Forbes.com.

Photo: Flickr/Global X