Under the Radar Descent-based Slavery as a Form of Contemporary Slavery

Examining the links between descent-based slavery and contemporary slavery in West Africa helps us to find the missing link to understanding the conditions under which slavery and slavery-like practices keep persisting despite abolitions and international anti-slavery legislation. 

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Descent-based slavery and its legacies continue to prevail in many West African communities. 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 were ascribed ‘slave status’ after moving to a new community and being treated as someone lower in status than those in power. For example, in times of intense warfare and slave raiding like in the West African Sahel in the second half of the twentieth century, people sought refuge in other villages and other regions. These refugees, as outsiders, were often viewed as of possible ‘slave origin’ by the local landlords upon their arrival in a new village. They were, thus, most often only offered to marry women with ascribed slave status; the children would be subsequently considered as ‘slaves’. In times of famine and acute hardship, some others had to pawn their children to get something to eat. If they could not reimburse their debt, the pawned children remained in the creditor’s family and their descendants could be ascribed a ‘slave status’.

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