Counting the Victims: Part 1 – The difficulty in quantifying victims of descent-based slavery, by Leah Durst-Lee (July 2021)

Since 2018, at least 3,000 people have been displaced due to slavery-related violence in the Kayes region of Mali. But to receive the help victims deserve, a better count of how many people have been displaced is needed. This will help activists, researchers and policymakers to develop durable solutions for those in need. However it is difficult to get a precise estimate of the people displaced, partly due to the stigma of slavery, and partly due to the challenges of locating displaced people, who may move individually or with their families, thus more difficult to identify as a displacement. This blog post is the first of a two part series on Counting the Victims. The first blog analyzes the difficulty in quantifying victims of descent-based slavery and the second the difficulty in counting victims of slavery-related internal displacements.

Despite widespread abolition and criminalization, descent-based slavery is practiced in several countries in the Sahel region, including Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Sudan, and The Gambia. In spite of its prevalence, counting descent-based slavery victims is difficult due to the illegal nature and stigma of slavery. This form of slavery is practiced in hierarchical societies where elite “slave owners” claim it to be a “traditional practice” that needs to be respected, and anti-slavery activists who dare to speak against the practice face violence and stigmatization. This stigma may lead some to silence, sharing memories only within the family or not even at all to rebuild lives without having to carry on the stigma of slavery. Those who experience slavery or its stigma may be forced to remain in the shadows because of a lack of resources, information or due to fear of retribution or shame. While staying silent may protect some from the stigma of slavery, it also leads to silence within the government, thereby magnifying and continuing its survival.

Despite the challenges, researchers and activists have attempted to count the number of victims of descent-based slavery, looking as far back as the late nineteenth century, when it is estimated that 3 to 3.5 million people, or about 30% of the whole population, were affected by slavery in French West Africa. Today in West African societies with histories of slavery, people categorised locally as “slave descendants” make up a large part of the population; an estimated several million people in West Africa are referred to in their native languages as “slaves” and so many of their descendants are forced to carry that stigma and are denied access to basic social services and political, economic, and civil rights as people without “slave” status can. The Malian anti-slavery organization Temedt estimates that, in Mali, at least 200,000 people are living in slavery today. It is unknown how many people experience such stigmatization in the Kayes region of Mali, however SlaFMig researchers estimate that 3,000 people were displaced due to their “slavery status” since 2018. The need to count victims is urgent. Knowledge of how many victims of descent-based slavery have been displaced in the Kayes region of Mali will help governments, aid organizations and activists to fully meet their needs. This is especially dire because many of those displaced are potentially vulnerable to further exploitation, such as domestic service, trafficking or prostitution. With accurate numbers of the crisis, victims, activists, researchers and policymakers can work together to create durable solutions for those who have been internally displaced. This is why the SlaFMig project is conducting research among people who have been displaced with slavery backgrounds, and fighting the stigma by raising awareness with campaigns and anti-slavery legal trainings. The numbers of those impacted by slavery-related displacements will be used to counter the silence in local and international governments, ensuring that victims receive the support they deserve. Please join our work by engaging with us on our website, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and TikTok.

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