It is a common practice in Mauritania; wealthy families in the cities hiring young girls as household servants. But after activists recently persuaded the government to prosecute employers for violating anti-slavery laws, many maids under the age of 18 were left with no job.
"The accusations that have recently been made by rights groups against some families about enslaving and employing minor maids made many, especially in Nouakchott, avoid hiring girls who don't have official documents," says housewife Lalla Ahmed.
In January, a Nouakchott court sentencedOumoulmoumnine Mint Bakar Vall to six months in prison for enslaving two girls, ages 10 and 14, in the city's Arafat neighbourhood. Last month, two men and three women were arrested for keeping three young female slaves in Nouakchott. The arrests came after anti-slavery NGO chiefs Boubacar Ould Messoud, Biram Ould Dah Abeid and Aminetou Mint El Moctar launched a hunger strike to compel authorities to press charges in the case.
These high-profile cases have led some fearful employers to fire their maids. One unemployed servant in Nouakchott told Magharebia, "The family where I have been working recently laid me off under the pretext that I may be under the age of 18, since I don't have a national identity card. I tried to convince them using other ways that I'm more than 20 years old, but in vain."
"I've worked for this family for more than one year without any official documents," Salka Mint Ahmed added. "I used to receive my monthly salary and even more than that. That family used to treat me well and respect me. I support a large family residing at slum neighbourhood in the city of Nouakchott."
Like many of Mauritania's young maids, she is from the Haratines. Slave-owners are Bedyanes. Anti-slavery activists have been fighting to bridge the ethnic and racial divide. But the Haratines are a poor population, and the new reality has turned the lives of many into a hell, especially those who don't have national identity cards.
Some families are now establishing certain conditions, including a requirement that maids be from another tribe, i.e. one that doesn't have tribal relations with the family in question. Another requirement is for maids to be in their 30's. The aim here is to avoid any legal problems with age and tribes. This is in addition to other requirements that were not in place in the past.
Mauritanian families are not accustomed to concluding employment contracts with maids or to requesting official documents.
"Contracts between maids and housewives have always been made verbally," says housewife Elmamiya Mint Sidi. "We would only agree on the salary, which is often paid on a monthly basis, and the nature of work," she continues. "There were no problems whatsoever. Rather, many maids started to develop strong relations with the families for whom they were working, and their salaries would be raised."
"However, the recent developments have unfortunately forced some families to review the situation and to take some new measures that no one needed."
Some citizens believe that the unemployment of maids has actually spread because of families' fears of being accused of exploitation. But for Biram Dah Ould Abeid, head of the Initiative for the Resurgence of the Abolitionist Movement (IRA), the new talk of job losses and impoverished families threatened by the end of the child's income is disinformation.
"This propaganda is made by those who were benefiting from the exploitation of marginalised categories because their interests have been greatly affected," Ould Abeid says.
The IRA "exerted huge efforts that led to international and internal pressures on the Mauritanian authorities until they gave in for the first time and made charges of slavery and exploitation of minors against people of the upper class," he told Magharebia.
"This measure has infuriated the classes that are engaged in slavery. As a reaction to the application of law, these classes launched propaganda… This propaganda carries within itself an attempt to incite the vulnerable and marginalised categories against human rights activists and advocates," the activist continued.
"The Mauritanian state, its parliament and legislators, as well as the international agreements that the country has signed, all criminalise and punish the crime of slavery or exploitation of minors," he noted. "We try to make the state enforce the agreements and laws that it has ratified."
Mauritania outlawed slavery in 1984. In 2007, the government passed a law that imposes a fine of 200,000 to one million Ouguiyas on anyone guilty of involvement in human trafficking
"The state, however, wasn't punishing the perpetrators of the crime of slavery or exploitation of minors," he tells Magharebia.
But the government's attempt to regulate the practice may also have left many girls without jobs, says Nebghouha Mint Abdellahi, co-ordinator of the Project for Protection of Minor Domestic Maids (PFMD).
"Some families now avoid employing maids out of fear of being accused of enslaving people. There was some sort of confusion between those who are allowed under the law to work and those who are not allowed."
"Therefore, we've organised an awareness campaign for the mothers and fathers of young maids to explain the conditions of domestic service," she added.
Children under the age of 15 are not allowed to work "under the law", she says. "If we know of these cases, we help their families get them back to school."
Some mothers confessed that they didn't know that they were violating the law. "I made my daughters, who are 14 and 13, work for seven months," said Lematt Mint Zeid Elmal, "I was forced by poverty to do that."
Another woman, Kadiata, confessed that she made her 12-year old daughter work for three years because of her need for a source of income.
"However, with the help of an organisation that combats the work of minor girls, I managed to get her back to school after I knew that I was violating the law with her work," she told Magharebia.
With wealthy families looking for cheap labour, and poor families eager for the work, Mauritania needs to help its most marginalised citizens, said Hamoud Ould Nebagh, vice chairman of the National Human Rights Commission (CNDH).
"The Mauritanian state must take measures to prevent the employment of minors," Ould Nebagh said. The state must also "improve the economic and social conditions of families who are forced by poverty into letting their children work", he added.
Telling people about the law that criminalises child labour is a start. "This is because most fathers and mothers who let their children work, and the families that employ them, don't know that it could land them in prison," Ould Nebagh said.
"There is no doubt that the word 'maid' in its new context still causes 'wounds,'" Mohamed Lemin Ould Abdellahi, a social analyst, told Magharebia. "I won't be surprised if the word continues to spark debates in the Mauritanian society because of the historical and cultural connotation that has not been gone for long. However, the reality has changed and, therefore, mentalities must change as well."