One of the least remarked upon aspects of the WikiLeaked embassy cables is the persistent focus by diplomats on the so-called “dark side of globalization”—the illicit global economy. From gun-runners and nuclear smugglers to concerns about the trafficking of people and natural resources, cables detailing the corrosive effects of organized crime on the national interest pepper the Cablegate database with remarkable frequency.
The issue of human trafficking, particularly, consumes the focus of numerous cables. As the anthropologist Pardis Mahdavi warns in her new book, Gridlock, the discourse around trafficking tends to oversimplify and blur thinking about a spectrum of activity that is not always coerced nor connected to the sex trade, but is often assumed to be monolithic, gendered and defined by socioeconomic desperation. However true this observation—and evidence suggests that it’s spot on—some cases are less unambiguous.
Child trafficking is one such instance, the subject of a 2009 cable with the alarming title “From Child Bride to Sex Slave,” which discusses the disturbing trend in Mauritania of young girls being “married off to wealthy Saudi [Arabian] men in exchange for hefty bride prices.” The bulk of the report recounts a discussion embassy officials had with Aminetou Mint El Moctar, president of the Association of Women Heads of Household, a Mauritanian NGO advocating for women’s rights.
Mint El Moctar told the diplomats that the traditional practice of child marriages
was the main driver of trafficking. Traffickers approach poor and ignorant Mauritanian families about marrying their daughter to wealthy Saudi men. Hefty bride prices amounting to five to six million ouguiya (approximately $20,000) and promises of better opportunities for the girls lure the families into accepting…The intermediaries are usually associated with local travel agencies, which Mint El Moctar are in reality trafficking networks. The girls are taken to Saudi Arabia by a family member or by a travel agency-designated “tutor.” The agency intermediary gets a commission from the husband for the striking the marriage deal—amounts vary according to the girl’s beauty and youth.
Mint El Moctar stressed that once they arrive in Saudi Arabia, these child brides become sex slaves to their husbands. She explained that pre-pubescent girls are highly prized by Saudi men but, once they reach puberty or become pregnant, they are of no further interest to their husbands. According to Mint El Moctar, the girls are then repudiated and thrown into the streets. Without a support network, they have no choice but to become prostitutes.
Mint El Moctar’s claims came as no shock to embassy officials which, the cable notes, had heard similar stories from other human rights activists. One claimed that “she had met a Mauritanian girl who had spent three years in Saudi Arabia locked up in a room without seeing anybody but her husband and a female servant who tended to her needs.” American diplomats had also heard reports from Radio France International which in an expose of the networks had interviewed young women brought to Saudi as child brides, including one “who, upon her divorce, had to leave her children behind in” the country.
Compounding the problem, “the Mauritanian government does not recognize trafficking as a problem” despite the fact that” articles 332 and 335 of the penal code have provisions against trafficking,” provisions that “are not enforced.” Mint El Moctar reported that she had contacted government officials in an effort to get them to at least rhetorical “denounce government inaction, but received no response.” As a result, Mint El Moctar reported that she had begun mobilizing “a public awareness campaign and is fighting for the creation of a law project to criminalize and combat trafficking.”
The cable’s author, Charge d’Affaires Dennis Hankins, notes in an aside that Mint El Moctar would likely have her work cut out for her. The previous February, embassy officials had raised the issue of human trafficking with a representative of the Ministry of Justice
who states trafficking of Mauritanian women did not exist and trafficking to Saudi Arabia was not possible because there was a government law that required women to travel with a male family member.
For a problem that supposedly doesn’t exist, the stakes sure are high for activists like Mint El Moctar, who warned that “she has received death threats for pushing the issue. She has been accused of being a liar, a madwoman, and a traitor who damages Mauritania’s reputation.”
More broadly, Mint El Moctar reported that young girls in Mauriatania who were not trafficked out of the country faced other problems no less upsetting. She
expressed concern about a recent surge in child marriages in Mauritania…According to Mint El Moctar, early marriages expose young girls to domestic violence, domestic servitude, and endangers their health. She introduced PolOff to a pregnant twelve-year-old girl who had already been married for three year s and regularly beaten by her husband.
After the meeting, Hankins followed up by verifying the child’s claims with another human rights NGO representative, who also reported that “one of her clients was a twelve-year-old who almost died in childbirth.”
Mint El Moctar argued that families pressing their daughters into early marriage were driven by fears of pre-marital sex or worries about the possibility of rape. As Hankins notes,
rape is a generalized problem in Mauritania that receives no government attention. Zeinebou Mint Taleb Moussa, president of the Mauritanian Association for the Health of Mother and Child (AMSME), said that in 2008 the center she supervises—the only one providing services to victims of rape in Mauritania—received 304 victims. She stated that most victims do not seek help. The week of April 1, a center volunteer was raped and threatened for her affiliation to the center.
Even as the Mauritanian government willfully ignored these violations of women’s rights, transnational advocacy groups and their partners at the United Nations were fully aware of what was going on. Yet sadly, the cable reports that UNICEF officials made clear to the embassy that “they do not have the resources to take concrete actions,” and “requested United States funds to help accelerate actions against child trafficking in Mauritania.” It’s not immediately evident what their idea of action might look like, but if their other tentative plan—“to approach this issue in its next national study”—is any indication, there’s much to be desired.
Hankins closes the cable with the observation that
trafficking, the corollary of poverty and traditional practices harmful to women, is one of many taboos in Mauritanian society. NGOs like Mint El Moctar’s wage a lone battle without resources or recognition…As the United States seeks to support democratic forces in Mauritania, it should put emphasis on increasing these NGO’s capacity to denounce and fight human rights abuses as well as provide support to victims. With their “in your face approach” towards the government, their capacity to undertake concrete actions and mobilize the population at the grassroots level, and their desire to fight against all odds for a more democratic society—even at the expense of their reputation and personal safety—human rights activists like Mint El Moctar are among our best partners in democracy.
Hankins’ recommendations did not go unheeded. In June 2010, Mint El Moctar and other activists dedicated to ending the trade in human trafficking were recognized by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for their courageous work. And to be sure, it has been impactful. The government of Mauritania now officially recognizes child trafficking as a public problem demanding emergency attention. At the same time, words have not been met with deeds. According to the US State Department’s 2010 annual report on human trafficking, Mauritania has not made any significant efforts to combat the phenomenon within its borders since 2009, inhabiting the exclusive basement tier in a worldwide ranking of countries fighting the trade in people.