Four of the ten countries with the highest prevalence of modern slavery in the world are in Africa. Mauritania, the Islamic republic in western North Africa, actually tops the list in terms of the percentage (4%) of the population who are victims of modern slavery. The Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan and Central African Republic are the three other African countries in the top 10.

However if we look at the figures in terms of absolute numbers, then India which is fifth on the list comes on top with 14.3 million enslaved people. That, by the way, is 40% of the 38.4 million people in modern slavery worldwide.

The latest Global Slavery Index released by the anti-slavery organisation, Walk Free Foundation, contained a worrying report card for Africa: of the 50 countries with the highest prevalence of modern slavery in the world, there are 31 in Africa.

Even though slavery in its original sense is not very commonplace these days, Andrew Forrest, the chairman of the Walk Free Foundation, said in the 2014 report that it was wrong to assume that “slavery is an issue from a bygone era. Or that it only exists in countries ravaged by war and poverty.”

Chairman of Walk Free Foundation, Andrew Forrest. Photo: BBC
Chairman of Walk Free Foundation, Andrew Forrest. Photo: BBC

Forrest explained why an index and report like the one produced by the Australian-based organisation was necessary. “We are all responsible for the most appalling situations where modern slavery exists and the desperate misery it brings upon our fellow human beings. The first step in eradicating slavery is to measure it. And with that critical information, we must all come together – governments, businesses and civil society – to finally bring an end to the most severe form of exploitation,” he said.

Human trafficking, forced labour, slavery or slavery-like practices like debt bondage, forced or servile marriage and sale or exploitation of kids, remain serious issues all over the world, and especially in Africa which has 62% of the top 50 countries with the largest number of enslaved people.

Take Mauritania for instance: Up until 2011, it was legal to own slaves in that country. A 2009 report on ‘Slavery in Mauritania by the US Department of State said, “Still today, masters lend their slaves’ labor to other individuals, female slaves are sexually exploited and children are made to work and rarely receive an education. Slavery particularly affects women and children, who are the most vulnerable among the vulnerable. Women of child-bearing age have a harder time emancipating because they are producers of slave labour and perceived as extremely valuable.”

Now, although slavery has been outlawed in Mauritania, a combination of weak law enforcement (no case has been successfully prosecuted), poverty and traditional beliefs makes it difficult to put an end to the practice. Slavery status is inherited from generation to generation.

Africa's several violent conflicts have led to the proliferation of child soldiers mostly co-opted against their will . Photo: BBC
Africa’s several violent conflicts have led to the proliferation of child soldiers mostly co-opted against their will . Photo: BBC

In the other African countries with high prevalence of modern slavery like the DRC, Sudan and CAR, the situation can be traced to the violent conflicts they’ve witnessed over the years, leading to a high number of displaced citizens and child soldiers who are more susceptible to be exploited. For those places, the report recommended that more should be done to demobilize and reintegrate children in armed conflict, strengthening law enforcement, provision of support services like shelters to victims, and return of the rule of law, amongst others.

The Global Slavery Index ranked 167 countries in all, with Iceland, Ireland and Luxembourg at 167, 166 and 165 respectively, emerging as the countries with the least prevalence of modern slavery. Africa’s best performers were Madagascar (137), Kenya (136) and South Africa (126).

Africa’s largest economy, Nigeria, was ranked 52 on the list, slightly worse than the North African nations of Egypt (53), Algeria (54) and Morocco (55).