Anti-slavery groups say the conflict and ensuing political chaos in Mali has worsened the situation facing the 250,000 people who live in conditions of slavery in the west African state. The MNLA leadership and parts of the Ansar Dine Islamist group, which fought for control of the north last year, come from Tuareg noble families, some of whom are responsible for continuing the practice of slavery in Mali. The Malian anti-slavery organisation Temedt has reported cases of slave masters profiting from the chaos of the past year to recapture former slaves, including at least 18 children seized from one village last September.
Although slavery is a crime against humanity in Mali's constitution, it remains deeply ingrained in the culture. For centuries, descent-based slavery – where slavery is passed down through the bloodline – has resulted in "black Tamasheq" (the Tuareg's language) families in Mali's north being used as slaves by nomadic Tuareg communities. Generations of children have been considered the property of the Tuaregs from birth. Despite the constitution, slavery is still not illegal in Mali, making it difficult for anti-slavery groups to launch criminal prosecutions.
In 2008, Raichatou escaped slavery in the northern desert town of Menaka, heading for the relative safety of Gao. Raichatou became a slave at the age of seven when her mother, also a slave, died. "My father could only watch on helplessly as my mother's master came to claim me and my brothers," she says. She worked as a servant for the family without pay for nearly 20 years, and was forced into a marriage with another slave whom she didn't know.My master only wanted me to have children so that he would have more slaves in the future. My opinion did not count. I had to live with a man I had not chosen for three years. They told me that the only way I would get to heaven was to obey my master. My instinct for liberty was telling me to grab every opportunity to be free, but my slave mentality was telling me the opposite" she says.