A 2005 report by the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women found that “slavery is a living reality among virtually all ethnic groups, especially the Tuaregs, the Arabs and the nomadic Fulani”. The report also identifies the Hausa.
Anti-Slavery International has identified three different types of slavery practiced in Niger today: chattel slavery, a “milder form” of slavery where former slaves are forced to give some of their crops to a former master; and wahaya, a form of concubinage involving the purchase of young girls to do household chores and act as sexual servants for their masters.
A more detailed explanation of wahaya is that it involves the sale of young girls (the majority below the age of 15) who are born into slavery in Tuareg communities and then sold to wealthy and prominent Hausa individuals as an unofficial “fifth wife”.
These women perform domestic duties for the official wives and are forced into sexual relationships with their masters. They are considered “fifth wives” because they are in addition to the four wives a person can legally have in Niger (according to Islamic tradition). As such, the girls are considered subservient to the official wives. Despite the name, men can take multiple “fifth wives”.
Although slavery is rare in urban environments, social pressure and social prohibitions on marriages of the descendants of slaves with the descendants of free persons creates a caste system that separates people even where slavery no longer exists.
Social pressure and social prohibitions on marriages of the descendants of slaves with the descendants of free persons creates a caste system.
Anti-Slavery International reports that in recent years communities of slave descent have moved to cut ties with their masters and attempt to establish independent villages. This has been increasingly successful after a project by Anti-Slavery International and its local partner, Timidria, supported six villages for people of slave descent.
The project established schools and formal education, providing human rights advocacy training and microloans for the parents to establish incomes to become truly independent of their former masters. The communities now consider themselves free and are increasingly successful in advocating with local authorities to support their schools and villages.
The monumental ruling
Niger’s top court has outlawed the practice of ‘Wahaya’, thus putting an end to a decade-long legal battle by one victim that could inspire others in the West African nation to seek justice, lawyers and activists said.
The ruling was based on the case of Hadizatou Mani, a woman who, after escaping forced slavery as a “fifth wife”, was taken to court by her former master who accused her of bigamy because of the marriage she entered into after her escape, according to Anti-Slavery International. Initially the court ruled in favour of her master but after an appeal by Mani, the Niger Court of Appeals ruled that her first marriage was never valid and that all “fifth wife” marriages are illegal, according to court documents seen by the Reuters Foundation.
“The custom of “Wahaya” or “Sadaka” is a traditional practice of acquiring a young women to serve as both a maid and a “concubine” or sex slave,” said the ruling, signed by the chief clerk of the Court of Appeals. “This custom … is contrary to the laws of the republic and the international conventions regularly ratified by Niger.”
Ms Mani’s fight, supported by Anti-Slavery International and Timidria, has been a landmark case for tackling traditional slavery practices that still persist in Niger. Mani, who was bought at the age of 12 for 240 000 CFA Francs (US$418) and was enslaved for nine years, first took her case to West Africa’s regional ECOWAS court. The court ruled in 2008 that Niger had failed to protect her from slavery.
Jakub Sobik from Anti-Slavery International said: “We are thrilled for Hadijatou and for people who are still affected by slavery practices across Niger. Hadijatou is a true anti-slavery hero. She had the courage to stand up to her master and bring real change to people in slavery across the country.
“This win marks an end of a long legal fight that Anti-Slavery International, with partners, started over a decade ago. Together with our partners we will work to ensure a full implementation of this ruling. The fight is far from being won, but we’re in it for the long haul.”
Mani’s lawyer, Abdourahaman Chaibou, said the case will set a precedent for future cases. “I think this decision is fundamental, in that it rejects a custom that has been practiced for centuries,” Chaibou said. “It’s a victory for the defence of human rights and especially the fight against slavery.”