Recently, Hadijatou Mani, a woman from Niger, won a legal case against her own government for failing to protect her from slavery. The Ecowas Court of Justice handed down the judgment, reminding us that slavery is alive and well and for many all over the world it is the daily reality of their existence.
Folami (not her real name) is confined in a small building with other young slaves. She looks confused and afraid. She does not know her biological father and was taken from her mother when she was about a year old. When the time comes she will be used to bear new slaves, although her wishes about this use of her body will not be taken into account.
It is difficult to say exactly how much she misses her mother as she is unable to verbalise her feelings, but everything suggests she misses her desperately. All Folami’s social links have been shattered and those faces she once recognised as family have been taken out of her life for ever. It is even possible she will be sold on to another owner and have to begin a totally new life -yet again. Whatever the case, the length of her life is certain to be very much shorter than if she were free.
When she does eventually bear her children they will not count as belonging to her, but to her “owner”, who will possess them as his right, to do with as he wishes. It is extremely unlikely she will be saved from her fate by an international outcry and the UN has no mandate to protect her. She cannot be helped by a court of law, as she is not legally recognized as a person, but only as property. It has always been this way for slaves, from Aristotle’s time right through to antebellum United States and for many it is still the case today.
There are several types of slavery, but the crucial condition is the ownership of one being by another. Aristotle made it clear that a slave is a tool which is there to be used. Other criteria include loss of liberty, loss of identity, lack of personal protection, no significant agency and the obliteration of family structures.
For Marx it was the labour of the working class which created wealth in society, but this unsurprisingly fails to take into account the invisible working class; the one whose members today suffer total oppression and endless abuse; that class which is constituted by nonhuman animals.
These billions of our fellow travelers are only the most recent generation of long lines of enslaved ancestors reaching back ten thousand years. The practice is so much a part of our common sense that we even fail to recognize their enslavement for what it is. Many people believe we have an inalienable right, even a religious obligation, to use them for whatever purposes we chose.
At this very moment, nonhumans like Folami are being used for traction, transport, entertainment, experimentation; and billions of them worldwide, as nothing more than machines whose bodies produce flesh or post partum milk or children to be sold for the profit of owners and the oral and olfactory pleasures of humans. These are truly powerless individuals and we fail dismally the ethical challenge posed by our total physical dominance over them. We fall back on the odious argument that our power gives us the right to do with them as we wish,, or alternatively, and incredibly, that the very reason for their existence is to serve us. Reasoning in this way we find alibis for our widespread institutionalized violence against them.
How long can we continue to lie to ourselves and go on stealing the bodies and lives of sentient nonhumans while at the same speaking out against slavery and in support of universal rights? How long will we go on living as if there is only one species on this planet that matters, that lives significant lives, that loves its children, that fears for itself and others and that longs for freedom?
This article was published in Grocott’s Mail (Grahamstown, South Africa) in February 09.
Les Mitchell is a Research Associate of Rhodes University but writes in his personal capacity.