A west African court has found Niger’s government guilty of failing to protect a 12-year-old who was sold into slavery in a landmark decision that may offer hope to thousands of others who are enslaved in the region.
Hadijatou Mani, who is now 24, had testified that she had been sold as a slave for around £323 against her mother’s wishes and was regularly sexually abused and beaten for a decade.
The justice arm of the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) also ordered the government to pay Mani the equivalent of £12,310 in compensation. “I am very happy with this decision,” she told reporters yesterday outside the court in Niamey, Niger’s capital. “I feel that I am a human being like everyone else.”
Though the court dismissed a second part of the case, which accused the state of legitimising slavery by enforcing customary laws, the ruling is deeply embarrassing for Niger, where slave status is passed down through generations.
The government claims to have done all it can to eliminate the practice, but local and international campaign groups say that more than 43,000 people remain in servitude there. Slavery also remains a problem in Mali, Mauritania and Sudan, according to Anti-Slavery International, the British group that helped bring the case to court.
During proceedings that attracted national attention, with senior political figures attending court sessions, Mani said she had been sold to El Hadj Souleymane Naroua, a friend of the master of her mother, also a slave, in 1996. Her status was that of a wahiya or sex slave.
Naroua, who was in his 60s and had seven other slaves, repeatedly raped Mani from the age of 13, and forced her to work long hours in his home and the fields without pay. Over the next 10 years she bore three of his children.
Niger criminalised slavery in 2003, and two years later Mani was given a “liberation certificate”. But her freedom proved short-lived. When she tried to marry a man of her own choosing Naroua claimed they were legally married.
Though a local court found in her favour, allowing her to proceed with the wedding, the decision was reversed on appeal. Mani was arrested, charged with bigamy and jailed for two months.