After a ten year battle, a top court in the Republic of Niger, a West African country, ruled earlier this year against the Muslim practice of taking a “fifth wife,” also called “wahaya.” This brings a legal end to a barbaric form of slavery in Niger, in which thousands of young girls have long and cruelly suffered as sex and domestic slaves.
“This custom is contrary to the laws of the republic and the international conventions regularly ratified by Niger,” the Court of Appeals ruled.
This ruling represents the end of a ten-year battle started when a former slave girl “fifth wife,” Hdijatou Meni, brought a lawsuit about the practice to an international court in 2008 and won. The Community Court of Justice, a branch of ECOWAS, a political and trade group of West African counties, ruled that Meni was a “fifth wife” slave for nine years despite “the legal prohibition on this practice.”
‘I am very thankful for this decision,” said Meni of the 2008 decision. “It was very difficult to challenge my former master and speak out when people see you as nothing more than a slave. But I knew this was the only way to protect my child from suffering the same fate as myself.”
One African newspaper reported Niger’s Court of Appeals that made the 2019 ruling based its decision on Meni’s case.
While Muslim men are legally allowed under Islamic law to have four wives, many in Niger buy slave girls, most under fifteen years of age, as non-legal “fifth wives.” These men may have also multiple “fifth wives.” Wealthy men, it was reported, buy such “wives” as a sign of prestige. And while one anti-slavery activist states the exact number of “fifth wives” is unknown, it is “very common” in some areas of Niger.
Besides “wahaya,” there are also two other kinds of slavery in Niger. One is chattel slavery, whose numbers are estimated between 43,000 and 133,000.
The third is called “soft” or “passive” slavery, in which former slaves remain in a kind of “tributary and forced labor situation” with their former masters. Their “individual freedoms are still controlled” and a violation of this arrangement by a former slave could lead to his being severely beaten. It is estimated there are approximately 870,000 “passive” slaves in Niger, which has been called the country’s “most prominent” form of slavery.
Slave children also work in Niger’s gold mines. Boys are also sometimes castrated, an old Islamic practice. Slave masters are also reported to sometimes separate slave children from their parents at a young age to break the parent-child bond.
The “fifth wife” slave girls are made to work long hours in the fields, herd animals perform domestic chores and forced to have sex with their masters in a form of concubinage. Masters can also arrange the girls’ marriages without their consent. As non-legal wives, these young girls are also subservient to the legal wives and made to perform domestic chores for them. And perhaps most terrible of all, any children these slave girls bear belong to their masters who can dispose of them as he wishes.
Meni, whose courage caused her to stand up against this modern-day barbarism, was born a slave, since her mother was also a slave, in the Tuareg tribe, a Berber people in Niger. But slavery, one report stated in 2005, also exists among Niger’s Arabs, Hausa and nomadic Fulanis. The Tuaregs sell these slave girls as “fifth wives” to “wealthy and prominent” Hausa tribal members. All slaves are black Africans, whose ancestors were captured in slave raids and who “remain trapped in hereditary slavery.” Black African slaves among the Tuaregs are called “black Tumacheqs” (after the language spoken by the Tuaregs).”
At age 12, Meni was sold for $412 dollars to a Hausa.
“I was negotiated over like a goat,” said Meni of the transaction that deeply affected her personal fate.
As a “fifth wife” slave for her new master, Meni performed all the hard-labor tasks mentioned above. And as his sex servant, she was forced to bear him three children.
“I was beaten so many times, I would run to my family,” said Meni. “Then, after a day or two I would be brought back. At the time I didn’t know what to do, but since I learned slavery had been abolished I told myself I will no longer be a slave.”
Slavery had been abolished when Niger was a French colony. But an independent Niger only abolished and criminalized it in 2003. One anti-slavery activist said this was only a “charm offensive to please westerners.” Everything, apparently, stayed the same on the ground.
An indication of government reluctance to enforce the new anti-slavery law is that despite the possible thousands of “fifth wife” girls in Niger, the first conviction for the now illegal practice only occurred 11 years later in 2014. The woman in the case “had faced a lifetime of physical and psychological abuse and forced labor.” Her 62-year-old “fifth wife” master was sentenced to four years in jail.
An activist with Timidria, Niger’s indigenous anti-slavery group that took the 2014 case to court (Timidria means “solidarity” in Tuareg) called the decision “incredible.” Niger’s government once arrested Timidria activists in an effort to suppress the slavery issue.
Meni’s master, apparently, initially kept the news of slavery’s abolishment from her but eventually he gave her a “certificate of liberation in 2005.”
Meni’s legal troubles started when she then married the man of her choice. Her former master then brought her to court, charging Meni with bigamy, saying she was his still wife despite there never having been a marriage ceremony or contract (In Islam, women can have only one husband.).
A local court in Niger found for Meni’s former master, declaring her guilty and sentencing her to six months in prison. Meni served two.
It was after this that Meni took her case to the Community Court of Justice in 2008, her lawsuit being the first slavery case the court ever heard. It ruled “there is no doubt” Meni was held in slavery and stated the Nigerian government had failed to protect her from this cruel institution, awarding her $20,000.
“With this compensation, I will be able to build a house and farm land to support my family,” said Meni at that time. “I will also be able to send my children to school so they can have the education I was never allowed as a slave.”
Pressure had initially been put on Meni to drop her lawsuit. But instead, the 2008 court decision she instigated appeared to stun the Nigerian government. It had always insisted there was no slavery in Niger. In fact, when one tribal chief declared he was going to free his 7,000 slaves, since slavery was against the Koran, and invited government representatives to the ceremony, they declined. The reason surmised was their presence would contradict their assertion of slavery’s non-existence in Niger.
But the ruling on Meni’s behalf in an international court in front of the whole world caused the Nigerian government to take the slavery issue “more seriously.”
Despite the ruling, however, slavery still exists in some areas of Niger as it does in neighboring Chad, Mali, Mauritania and northern Nigeria. Anti-slavery activists will now focus on “raising awareness and enforcement.”
“The fight is far from being won, but were in it for the long haul,” said Jeff Sobik of Anti-Slavery International, a partner in Meni’s anti-slavery fight.
In 2012, Meni was honored by the United States by receiving the Secretary of State’s International Women of Courage Award in a ceremony attended by Hilary Clinton and Michelle Obama. This award was founded in 2007 by Condoleeza Rice on International Women’s Day.
“Most of the awards honorees, past and present, come from Muslim countries and have experienced imprisonment and some form of violence,” stated one journalist. Meni was no exception.
Nevertheless, her story is truly inspirational. Sobik, whose anti-slavery organization now employs Meni, calls her a “true anti-slavery hero.”
“No one deserves to be enslaved,” said Meni. “We are all equal and deserve to be treated the same. I hope that everyone in slavery today can find their freedom. No one should suffer the way I did.”