Niger’s Wahayu Endure Domestic and Sexual Enslavement

By Sharon L. Fawcett, CLC Contributing Writer

Niger’s Tahoua region has a history of enslavement dating back to the early 18th-century arrival of the Touaregs, who brought slavery-like practices with them. Today, young girls and women sold as domestic and sexual servants are the victims of this centuries-old scourge.

Although the Nigerien government has maintained, since 2005, that slavery no longer exists in Niger, the U.S. Department of Labor’s (USDOL’s) 2013 Trafficking in Persons report and a joint report by UK-based non-governmental organization Anti-Slavery International and Niger-based Timidria, suggest otherwise. According to these reports, it is not uncommon for Nigerien girls to become the victims of human trafficking and forced labor.

In Niger, a girl born into slavery can be sold by her master as a wahaya (plural: wahayu) or “fifth wife” to a wealthy or powerful man in the country’s Tahoua region—or in northern Nigeria—for as little as $400 US (200,000 CFA).

While owning a wahaya is a sign of affluence, wahayu “marriages” are illegitimate because they do not comply with several of the Islamic rules for marital unions. Since they are illegitimate wives, the women “wed” to men through this practice also bear the name “fifth wives”—not one of the four legitimate wives permitted by Islamic practises in a nation where Muslim is the predominant religion.

A wahaya works without pay; she is enslaved in domestic and sexual servitude. Tikirit Amoudar, a 45-year-old who became a wahaya at age 10, described her experience to Anti-Slavery International and Timidria researchers:

My workload was heavy: fetching water for all the family; fetching water for livestock (over 100 cattle); hulling and pounding grain…for food and foodstuffs; providing firewood for the family; [making] large preparations [for] community gatherings in the master’s fields…; washing up; preparing the mistresses’ and the master’s beds; looking after the children and keeping the courtyard clean…

Wahayu face constant physical and verbal abuse from their masters’ legal wives, who may view them as competition. They also live in fear for the welfare of any children they may bear for their master, as these children are considered his legitimate offspring and represent a threat to the inheritance of his other children. The master’s legitimate wife, or wives, may attempt to eliminate those threats through kidnapping, sorcery, or even murder.

Niger’s young wahayu are among the 10.5 million children worldwide who perform domestic child labor. Eighty-three percent of the wahayu interviewed by Anti-Slavery International and Timidria researchers had been sold into this form of servitude before age 15.

The “fifth wives” practice violates Nigerien law. Slavery was abolished in Niger upon the nation’s independence from France in 1960. In 2003, legislation was passed to make slavery a criminal offence punishable by a prison sentence of 10 to 30 years, and a fine. Niger has also ratified a number of international conventions and protocols which the wahaya practice violates, including the International Labour Organization’s Minimum Age Convention (C138) and Worst Forms of Child Labor Convention (C182); the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child and its Optional Protocol on the Sale of Children, Child Prostitution, and Child Pornography; and the U.N. Palermo Protocol on Trafficking in Persons. However, Niger’s laws are not vigorously enforced by the government.

In 2004, Timidria estimated that at least 43,000 people were enslaved in Niger. In 2006, the organization, along with Anti-Slavery International, helped Hadijatou Mani, an enslaved young woman, secure the first successful prosecution under Niger’s 2003 anti-slavery law, yet the government failed to ensure her newly-won freedom. In 2008, she took her case before the Economic Community of West African States’ Court of Justice. In a historic ruling, the court found Niger in breach of its own laws for failing to protect Hadijatou Mani from slavery.

Niger’s government enacted a Law on Combatting Trafficking in Persons in 2010 (Public Law Number 2010-86) but, according to the USDOL’s Trafficking in Persons (TIP) reports, the government subsequently made weak attempts to investigate and prosecute trafficking offenses. The 2013 TIP report indicates that in the past year government efforts have improved. However, authorities are still failing to make systematic efforts to identify trafficking victims in vulnerable populations, like those born into slavery. Therefore, the wahayu remain unprotected.

Timidria and Anti-Slavery International maintain that the best way to end the practice of “fifth wives” is for the government to enforce its laws. Until it does, wahayu are destined to continue to be treated in the manner that Tikirit Amoudar says she was—as “just a ‘thing’, a multi-purpose object to be used at any time, however and wherever.”

“10 Facts about Niger’s ‘Fifth Wives’ or Wahayu” can be found clicking here.