Local and international rights groups estimate that at least 43,000 people are enslaved in Niger.
Anti-slavery ruling hailed by activists
Hadijatou Mani was 13 the first time she was raped by her "owner", an experience she would endure repeatedly for almost a decade, bearing three of his children in the process. Ms Mani, born the daughter of a slave, had been sold when she was 12 by her mother's master for the equivalent of US$390 (Dh1,435), and spent the next nine years in forced servitude to her owner's family, subjected all the while to physical and sexual abuse.
"We were doing all the housework and working on farms. I was beaten so many times," Ms Mani, 24, who was one of eight slaves owned by her master, told reporters this week. "At the time I did not know what to do, but since I learnt slavery has been abolished I told myself that I will no longer be a slave. "It was very difficult to challenge my former master and to speak out when people see you as nothing more than a slave.
"But I knew that this was the only way to protect my child from suffering the same fate as myself. Nobody deserves to be enslaved." Local and international rights groups estimate that at least 43,000 people - and probably many thousands more - are enslaved in Niger, even though slavery has been comprehensively outlawed. Anti-Slavery International, based in London, and its local partner, Timidria, learnt of Ms Mani's situation in 2005 while conducting an awareness-raising session in the village of her master, El Hadj Souleymane Naroua, 63, north of the capital of Niamey. They warned Mr Naroua that slave ownership had been criminalised and he could face charges.
He freed Ms Mani in Aug 2005, but successfully prosecuted her for bigamy in a customary court after she married another man, arguing she had automatically become his wife upon her release. The court ruled that under Niger's customary law a slave girl is de facto married to her master once she is freed. Ms Mani was fined and served two months of a six-month prison sentence. After failing to win her freedom in Niger's courts, Ms Mani, with the assistance of Anti-Slavery International and Timidria, took her case to the community court of justice run by Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas). There she claimed Niger had failed to abide by its own laws as well as international treaties prohibiting slavery.
In a historic ruling on Monday, Ecowas convicted Niger of failing to protect Ms Mani and enforce its anti-slavery laws, and ordered the government to pay her $19,000 in compensation. "I am very happy with this decision," Ms Mani said after the verdict. "I will be able to build a house, raise animals and farm land to support my family. I will also be able to send my children to school so they can have the education I was never allowed as a slave."
The Niger government said it would accept the court's ruling. "We are law abiding and will respect this decision," said Mossi Boubacar, a legal official for Niger's government. Activists said the ruling offers hope to the tens of thousands of Nigeriens living in forced servitude. "This decision sets a precedent," said Ilguilas Weila, the president of Timidria. "We hope this can change the whole system in Niger and will eventually put an end to the persistence of slavery."
Niger abolished slavery in 1960 and officially prohibited the practice in 1999 before criminalising it in 2003. Slave ownership was made punishable with a fine and prison sentence of between 10 and 30 years. The country has also ratified a number of international treaties recognising the illegality of slavery. But slavery - practised predominantly by the country's Tuareg and Moorish populations - is deeply ingrained in Niger society, stretching back hundreds of years to the Arab and Berber conquests of North and Saharan Africa.
According to rights groups, slaves are born into bondage and denied the most basic rights, are forced to do housework and agricultural work for their masters and their families, often have their children taken away, are given as gifts, and are regularly beaten and sexually abused. Romana Cacchioli, Africa programme director for Anti-Slavery International, said uprooting the "culture of slavery" would be one of the biggest challenges.
"It is embedded in the social and cultural fabric of the [slave-owning] groups. These are often nomadic peoples living in remote areas, where there has never been any challenge to status quo," Ms Cacchioli said. She said the government needs "to train the judiciary and apply international human rights standards. It will need the backing of the international community. "There needs to be a national awareness raising campaign that touches all peoples. And there has to be assistance for those coming out of slavery: access to job training, farmland, microcredit. Something to help them make a life," she said.
Vast and landlocked with 80 per cent of its territory taken up by the Sahara desert, Niger, with a population of 12 million, is one of the poorest countries in the world. Slavery persists in several Saharan countries including Mali, Chad, Sudan and Mauritania, where an estimated 600,000 people, or 20 per cent of the population, are enslaved. Although Ms Mani said she knows that things will not change for her overnight, she hopes her victory will send a message.
"We are all equal and deserve to be treated the same," she said. "No woman should suffer the way I did." email@example.com