In Niger today, tens of thousands of people are enslaved, trapped in generational cycles. Slavery remains deeply entrenched in Niger despite efforts to eradicate these practices through legislation to officially criminalize the practice.
Wahaya is one of the common forms of bondage in the country, where girls are bought to perform domestic work and sexual services for as little as $200.
Typically it is wealthy men and traditional leaders who buy girls under wahaya. Under Islamic law, men are allowed to have a maximum of four wives and an unofficial “fifth wife” who undertakes domestic labor.
Dr. Benedetta Rossi, who studies slavery in Niger at University College London said “You are also producing free labor because the wahaya is constantly working – she fetches water, she cleans, she cooks, she does jobs free wives cannot do because they are supposed to stay at home.”
Wahaya is mostly practiced in the southern region of Niger, called the “triangle of shame” by Timidria – an anti-slavery organization in Niger.
Al-Husseina Amadou’s story
Al-Husseina Amadou is just one woman who was bought as a wahaya when she was a young girl. Al-Husseina was born into slavery, like her parents. She recalls her experiences of being bought as a “fifth wife” by a wealthy man from Nigeria. Al-Husseina was taken across the border to Nigeria where she was forced into domestic servitude for this man and his family.
“My parents had no say,” she recalls. “I was just a girl and he bought me like a chicken in the market. When I left with him, I was crying with my mother.”
“If I fled or didn’t work, the wives and even the children would beat me,” Amadou says. “It was a pitiful situation. I was skinny because I was always hungry. If my husband bought food he would just give it to his wives and children. I got nothing.”
Eventually, Al-Husseina managed to escape with some camel herders who helped her cross the border back into Niger where she was supported by Timidria.
Resistance to change
Timidria and anti-slavery activists in Niger who visit villages to identify victims of slavery, inform enslaved people of their rights, and help them with legal cases, face resistance.
Women who are supported to speak out against their enslavement face being punished by police who turn a blind eye to the practice. Law enforcement and even judges aren’t aware that wahaya is in fact illegal.
However, activists continue to raise awareness of the harms of slavery. Ali Bissou, head of Timidria says “Even today, if you visit the house of a chief in the ‘triangle of shame’, you will find wahayas, for sure. The best thing we can do is keep raising awareness that this is illegal.”