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Wahayas, the slavery of fifth Wives

D 12 novembre 2022     H 07:00     A     C 0 messages

Thousands of girls in west Africa who are still bought cheaply as a wahaya, or ‘fifth wife’. Despite several attempts at abolition, slavery remains deeply entrenched in Niger.

Al-Husseina Amadou never forgets the day she was sold. Like her parents, she was born into slavery in southern Niger. Forty-five years ago, when she was 15, a wealthy businessman from across the border in Nigeria arrived and bought her from her family’s master as a “fifth wife” or wahaya.

“It is a form of sex trafficking,” says Dr Benedetta Rossi, who studies slavery in Niger at University College London. “In Islam, prostitution and sex outside of marriage are outlawed as sins, and so there is a demand for women who are available for a relationship that is legitimate from a traditional and a religious-legal perspective.”

Wahaya is one of the most prevalent forms of bondage in Niger. It is a system through which wealthy men and traditional leaders buy girls for sex and domestic work for as little as £200. Today wahaya is mainly practised in a southern region near the Nigerian border Timidria, a local charity that campaigns against slavery, refers to as the “triangle of shame”. The tradition allows men who have the maximum of four wives permitted by Islamic law to take on concubines known euphemistically as “fifth wives”.

“My parents had no say,” she recalls. “I was just a girl and he bought me like a chicken in the market."

For 15 years Amadou lived with her “husband” in northern Nigeria, cooking and cleaning for his four “official” wives, whom he had married in accordance with Islamic law, and their children, while also working in their fields and tending their livestock. Barely fed, she would eat the family’s leftovers or steal handfuls of grain. She ran away dozens of times, returning to her family in Niger, but was always caught and brought back. For these transgressions, she was beaten with a stick and still carries the scars on her back.

“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.”

Amadou chose not to marry as a free woman. Today she lives with five other former wahaya and their children. Together they run a co-operative, weaving straw sleeping mats and selling them at their local market.

“We were treated like animals,” says Amadou. “Now we are free ; we live like people. No one tells us what to do. We have a happy life.”

Hadizatou Mani is one of the former wahaya Timidria has assisted. In 1996, aged 12, she was sold for about £250 to a man in his sixties, who beat her and forced her to bear three children. “I was brought to my new husband’s compound at night,” says Mani. “I had to pound millet, fetch water and work on his farm during the planting season and the harvest. I didn’t have the right to say no. There was no choice but to obey.” She adds : “When I was with him, he beat me often. The neighbours asked him to stop but he refused. He said he owned me and could do whatever he wanted to do.”

The French colonial administration outlawed slavery in 1905 and it was also banned under the 1960 constitution, when Niger gained independence. Other attempts followed in 1999 and 2003, with a penal code that formally defined and criminalised the practice.

Yet there are still tens of thousands of enslaved people across Niger, according to Anti-Slavery International and Timidria ; some estimates put the number as high as 130,000. Most are descendants of people who were enslaved generations ago, living and working on the land of their ancestral “masters”.

The children of women enslaved as wahaya are born with free status. “You can be a man of 70 with four wives and a wahaya, who continues to produce sons and daughters,” says Rossi. “It adds to your status. You are not just having sex, you are producing heirs.

“You are also producing free labour 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.”

Men with wahaya are often well connected and police turn a blind eye to the practice, at times punishing the women who protest against their status rather than the men who enslaved them, according to Ali Bissou, the head of Timidria. “There is very little change,” says Bissou. “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.”

Founded in 1991, Timidria has offices in every region of Niger and relies on a network of volunteers to identify victims of slavery. It also visits villages, informing enslaved people of their rights and helping them bring lawsuits against their enslavers. It has set up several centres for former slaves and their children.

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