By John D. Sutter, CNN
(CNN) - A quick glance at slavery stats makes the situation in Mauritania seem fairly hopeless: The West African nation was last in the world to abolish slavery; an estimated 10% to 20% of people live in some form of slavery today; and, while the government made slavery a crime in 2007, only one slave owner has been successfully prosecuted.
But ask Gulnara Shahinian, the United Nations' special rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery, about her recent visits to the country and you see a picture that's hidden beneath those shocking statistics.
Shahinian says Mauritania could be nearing a turning point. It's clear what needs to be done to eradicate slavery in Mauritania, and government leaders finally are considering making some of the right decisions, she said.
"This country has opened its door" to discuss slavery with the UN, she said. "Why don’t we try to support them?"
In a CNN interview, a government minister denied slavery's existence, and the country does not allow journalists into its borders to report on the existence of slavery. But CNN managed to do just that. "Slavery's Last Stronghold" documents the phenomenon.
The international community shouldn't shame Mauritania for being a place where old-world forms of slavery are still relatively common, Shahinian said. Now people must let Mauritania know that they would support the country if it enforced anti-slavery laws and created more programs to help people who escape from slavery survive.
“Positive encouragement will give the government and others more incentive to do better,” she said, adding that she has observed progress in the last two years, during which time members of the government have agreed to meet with her about slavery.
Here are five ways Shahinian says Mauritania can and should change if it wants to end slavery. She's hopeful that, if people from around the world are watching, these measures will be adopted soon:
Implement the law against slavery: Mauritania abolished slavery in 1981 but only made it a crime in 2007. Since then, only one slave owner has been successfully prosecuted. Shahinian said the first step to change is for the country to get serious about enforcing the law it already has on the books. It should hear the cases of slavery’s victims and prosecute slave owners. "People are conspiring to make sure these cases get buried," said Sarah Mathewson, Africa program coordinator for Anti-Slavery International.
Teach people slavery is a crime: Mauritanians who live in isolated parts of the Sahara Desert often don’t know slavery is a crime, Shahinian said. Government officials and non-governmental organizations should travel into the countryside to educate people about the 2007 anti-slavery law and make their rights clearly known. A media campaign could be part of the effort, she said, but in-person meetings would be best. “The majority of the population is illiterate; you cannot make brochures and distribute them.” Further, government leaders must counter cultural assumptions about what happens to slaves after they escape. Slaves “fear if they break the chains they will be punished,” she said. That must change through education and awareness campaigns.
Support slaves after they escape: Currently, there are only two centers designed to help people who escape from slavery - both in Mauritania’s capital, Nouakchott, according to anti-slavery activists in Mauritania and abroad. One teaches escaped women and their children how to sew, cook and dye clothes. Another offers shelter to escaped slaves. Only a few dozen people receive these services and they must be scaled up dramatically if slavery is to be eradicated, Shahinian said, especially in rural areas. Ex-slaves must be educated if they are to become productive members of the economy, she said.
Compensate slavery’s victims: Recently escaped slaves should be paid reparations for the time they spent in slavery, Shahinian said. The government should set up a fund that controls the compensation, and slave owners should also be responsible for payment, she said. That money would be used to help freed and escaped slaves get housing and become part of the workforce.
Investigate the extent slavery: To date, researchers have not been able to conduct a full survey of slavery in Mauritania because the government isn’t willing to let that happen, she said. In this information vacuum, activists and researchers are left guessing about how many people in Mauritania are enslaved and what types of slavery exist. Traditional slavery, in which families are enslaved and work without pay, is thought to be the most common form of slavery there, but human trafficking and other modern forms of slavery may exist, too. “The government has not agreed to do those studies,” she said.