Blogpost on descent-based slavery in the Sahel – Leah Durst-Lee (February 2021)

Descent-based slavery, also described as hereditary or caste-based slavery, is practiced in the Sahel region, including Mauritania, Niger, Mali, Senegal, Burkina Faso, Northern Benin, Ghana, Nigeria, Cote d’Ivoire, Chad and Sudan. This form of slavery is defined by Anti-Slavery International as when an individual is “born into slavery because their ancestors were captured into slavery and their families have ‘belonged’ to the slave-owning families ever since”. This status is passed down mostly through the maternal line, to ensure that future generations are born into slavery. Some may not even have ancestors who were captured and sold as slaves, but rather they were ascribed the status after moving to a new community so they would be treated as someone lower in status than those in power. They are often considered as property, and can be given as gifts or passed down the family line as inheritance by the enslaver. Victims of descent-based slavery suffer numerous human rights violations, and can be forced to work without pay and denied access to basic social services such as schooling and necessary identity documents, without which “it is impossible to gain access to civil, political, economic, social or cultural rights” (Anti-Slavery International).  Even after escaping the communities where they were treated as slaves, the victims of descent-based slavery often continue to live at the bottom of the social ladder, facing daily discrimination, social exclusion and violence. A society that does not question, or even explicitly ignores inherited slavery-based social hierarchies thus denies basic rights to a large part of their population.

It is difficult to determine exactly how many people are affected by situations of descent-based slavery due to a lack of government sources, political will and potentially the taboo and illegal nature of slavery, making those affected uncomfortable or unwilling to speak out. It is estimated that nearly 56% of the population are vulnerable to slavery; approximately 300,000 individuals currently live in exploitative situations due to their ascribed slave status, but an estimated 850,000 are considered ‘descendents of slave’ or have been ascribed a ‘slave status’. 

Descent-based slavery has a long history in both colonial and contemporary West Africa. It existed in the Sahel before the Transatlantic Slave Trade and expanded at the end of the nineteenth century due to internal war and conflicts. The internal slave trade was officially abolished in West Africa by the French colonial authorities in 1905. Despite the lack of implementation of this decree on the ground, which was mostly passed in the hope it would ‘liberate’ manpower for colonial forced labour, some of the enslaved took their liberation in their own hands, and escaped their owners to establish independent communities in the Kayes region, among others. Yet, in view of this unfinished abolition of internal african slavery, the practice is still deeply embedded within Malian society, a so-called ‘post-slavery society’, and continues to this day in several regions of Mali and among multiple ethnic groups. Both past and present, the ruling class simply adapted to the new restrictions by hiding slavery practices under the guise of kinship, marriage and adoption/fosterage with the complicity of the (post-)colonial state which feared that a strict application of the law would disrupt too heavily local slavery-based economies.

Postcolonial Mali has never criminalized slavery, despite numerous advocacy campaigns by Malian anti-slavery movements such as Temedt and Gambana, both partners in our research. ‘Between 2013 and 2016, the Ministry of Justice supported legislation drafted by Temedt and others criminalising the practice of slavery’, however its passage in parliament has been time and again relegated by other agendas, displaying an inability or unwillingness by the government to understand the persisting forms of slavery in Mali today (Anti-Slavery International). The lack of a law criminalising slavery directly impacts the ability of those discriminated against on the basis of their ascribed ‘slave status’ and their advocates to seek justice in the courts.

The objective of our research on Slavery and Forced Migration (SlaFMig) in Mali is to analyze and map the recent history of displacements related to descent-based slavery as strategies of resistance. We propose concrete measures to redress this unacknowledged long-term crisis by training legal professionals and by advocating for the passage of laws that criminalize descent-based slavery, as well as by sensitizing the local and national government in Mali to understand and manage the displacements of people with ascribed ‘slave status’.


Leah Durst-Lee, currently working as a research intern at the University of Copenhagen on protracted rural displacements, contributed to the writing of this article.



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Global Slavery Index (2018). 2018 Global Slavery Index. Available at: <> (Accessed: 9/11/2020)

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Keita, N. (2012). L’esclavage au Mali. Paris: L’Harmattan.

Pelckmans, L. (2011) Travelling hierarchies: Moving in and out of slave status in a Central Malian    Fulɓe network. Leiden: African Studies Collection (34).

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Rodet, M. (2012). “‘Under the Guise of Guardianship and Marriage’: Mobilizing Juvenile and Female Labor in the Aftermath of Slavery in Kayes, French Soudan, 1900-1939” in Trafficking in Slavery’s Wake. Law and the Experience of Women and Children in Africa, ed. by Benjamin N. Lawrance and Richard L. Roberts (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2012), 86-100.

Rodet, M. (2015).“Escaping Slavery and Building Diasporic Communities in French Soudan and Senegal, c. 1880-1940”, The International Journal of Historical African Studies 48 (2) (2015): 1-24.

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