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Woman wins case against Niger for slavery

by Boureima Hama*

West African judges yesterday fined the state of Niger the equivalent of 15,000 euros for failing to protect a woman sold into slavery aged 12, in a landmark ruling with implications across the region.
The Court of Justice of the Economic Community of West African States recognised that the young woman, Adidjatou Mani Koraou, now 24, had been "a victim of slavery" and held "the Republic of Niger responsible for the inaction" of its administrative and legal services, according to a ruling read out by a court official.
Judges fined Niger 10 million CFA francs. The woman's lawyers had claimed five times' that amount in damages.
It was the first time the ECOWAS regional court had been asked to rule on a case of slavery, and its verdict will be binding on all member states.
The plaintiff, a Niger national, sued the government of her vast, largely arid country on the southern edge of the Sahara for failure to enforce anti-slavery laws.
She was sold into slavery as a 12-year-old for the equivalent of 330 euros in the south of the country, and over the next decade she was forced to carry out domestic and agricultural work.
She also lived as a sexual slave or sadaka to her master, who already had four wives and seven other sadaka, according to the NGO Anti-Slavery International, which has backed her case.
Adijatou "served her master and his family for 10 years. She was never paid for her work and lived in a state of complete submission to her master, being subjected to regular beatings and sexual violence.
"Her circumstances fall squarely within the longstanding internationally accepted definition of slavery," the organisation said in a statement released ahead of the hearing.
The case has widespread implications for other West African states, such as Mali and Mauritania, where slavery is widely practised, according to anti-slavery activists.
Malian human rights organisation Temedt said earlier this year that "several thousand" people were living in slavery or slave-like conditions in the country.
Concerted pressure forced the government of Niger to introduce anti-slavery legislation in 2003, with a maximum penalty of 30 years in jail.
Anti-Slavery International says that in spite of this, there are still at least 43,000 slaves in the country.
"They are born into an established slave class and are made to do all the labour required by their masters without pay, including herding and cleaning … They are denied all rights and choice," it says.
According to some estimates from activists, the number is closer to 800,000, in a country of 12 million people, but this had been vehemently denied by the government, which in 2007 launched an inquiry to determine the extent of slavery. The results have yet to be made public.
Anti-Slavery International said the ruling would have a "wide-ranging impact on slavery and human rights issues beyond Niger."