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Child bride or slave? The girls in Niger who are both

Ankle bracelet slaves are forced to wear. Photo: Anti-Slavery International

In Niger, 75% of girls are married before 18 – the highest rate of child marriage in the world. What is more, many of these girls are subjected to a life of domestic and sexual slavery.

‘Wahaya’ are girls and women who are sold as ‘fifth wives’ to other men. They’re known as ‘fifth wives’ because they have a different status to the four wives legally permitted in Niger. A man might have three or four legal wives and then any number of ‘fifth wives’.

No marriage ceremony takes place and these girls don’t benefit from any of the legal rights or protection that legal wives have. They are essentially treated as domestic and sexual slaves, but are still referred to as wives.

Slavery, violence and sexual abuse: the life of a ‘wahaya’

At Anti-Slavery International, we wanted to know more about what life is like for ‘wahaya’. Our researchers interviewed 165 wahaya and found that 83% had been sold before they were 15 years old.

Among these women was Hadidjatou, who became a wahaya at the age of 12. She was sold for 240,000 CFA (about $483) to Elhadj Souleymane, who was 46, and already had four wives and seven other wahaya. 11 wives in total!

Hadidjatou. Photo: Anti-Slavery International

Hadidjatou carried out domestic and agricultural work, for which she was never paid, and was subjected to regular beatings and rape. She had four children, of whom only two survived.

In 2005, Elhadj Souleymane became aware of a new law against slavery and decided to release Hadidjatou, with the intention of marrying her immediately. But as soon as Hadidjatou realised that she was being freed, she took her certificate and escaped. She was just 21 and had endured nine years of slavery.

Hadidjatou eventually married a man of her choice, with whom she had a baby. But when Elhadj Souleymane discovered this, he filed a complaint with the local police department and brought charges of bigamy against Hadidjatou.

In May 2007, Hadidjatou, her husband and her brother to were sentenced to six months’ imprisonment and set a fine of 50,000 CFA ($100). Despite their appeals, they were held in prison while the process continued.

More than a year later, the Community Court of Justice of the Economic Community of West African States ruled against the State of Niger for failing to protect Hadidjatou from slavery. Aged 24, she was finally free and compensated with 10,000,000 CFA ($20,000) by the State.

How can we break this cycle of slavery?

When I visted Niger for the launch of Anti-Slavery’s report on the wahaya practice, six former wahaya attended. At the launch in the desert city of Tahoua, we were joined by several religious leaders and customary chiefs, and many civil society organisations including representatives from the anti-slavery group Timidria. A few government officials attended, but not for long.

The Wahaya spoke loudly and passionately. One woman, Mariama, is still trying to win her freedom, but her master is attempting to claim her back as his wife. The legal case is ongoing. She wept as she spoke of the abuse she had suffered.

Another woman pulled out the heavy brass ankle ring she had been forced to wear to mark her as a slave. There was a collective gasp as she held it up before the audience. How could anyone force another human being to wear such a thing?

A former wahaya

We ended the launch by discussing ways to end the wahaya practice. The women felt awareness-raising campaigns were most effective as many masters worried about the legal implications of the practice. Anti-slavery campaigns and widely talked about cases like Hadidjatou’s could deter men from buying wahaya and lead them to release any wahaya they keep. It might also encourage the wahaya to leave their masters and assert their rights.

The Wahaya also asked for help sending their children to school to break the cycle of slavery. When families of slave descent become economically independent and have access to education, they become empowered and their masters are less able to exploit and abuse them.

While we were in Niger, we received a report of a seven year-old girl about to be sold as a wahaya to a master in Nigeria. Seven years old! Luckily the Timidria team in Tahoua intervened to prevent the sale from taking place.

Child marriage is a mistaken form of protection

When I was in Niger, I also visited one of the six schools for children of slave descent funded and managed by Timidria and Anti-Slavery International.

These children have never before had access to education. It was lovely to see how eager they were to learn. The children performed poems and sketches for us. The classes had a fairly even number of girls and boys, but the school’s coordinator, Agali, noted that at least two girls from our schools, aged 12 and 13, left to get married that year.

Student at a school supported by Anti-Slavery International and Timidria

Agali is concerned that girls will soon be forced into marriage because of a perceived shortage of wives. Recently, a young girl’s parents wanted to give her in marriage to an older relative returning from Libya, but the community managed to prevent the marriage. This prompted Agali to visit all the communities where our schools are based to talk to parents and pupils about the dangers and illegality of child marriage.

When we asked a group of village women their thoughts on child marriage, several said that if girls weren’t married by 10-12, they risked being sexually abused by men. We challenged them on this, but they said that girls should be married for their own protection, as men can be dangerous. It’s so sad that young girls have to bear the consequences of men’s behaviour!

Agali emphasised that pre-marital sex and pregnancy are extremely shameful for a family and a community, even when a girl has been raped. It is believed that men would not rape or abuse a married girl and it is considered better for girls to marry young.

I wanted to protest that the girl would still be raped and abused by her own ‘husband’! Why don’t the communities focus on regulating men’s behaviour and ending sexual violence, rather than marrying off girls when they could be in school?

Read Anti-Slavery International’s report: Wahaya: domestic and sexual slavery in Niger

Read UN Special Rapporteur on Contemporary Forms of Slavery’s statement on International Day for the Abolition of Slavery: “Women and girls who are forced to marry spend their lifetime in slavery”