Born into Slavery

Mariama Oumarou is still a young woman but for most of her life she worked as a slave. Her story of descent-based enslavement is common in Niger and other parts of the world.

Durban Review Conference, April 2009- UN Photo/Jean-Marc FERREMariama belongs to Niger’s “Black Touareg” community. Generations ago Africans were enslaved by the Touaregs and the descendants of those original slaves still describe themselves as “Black Touregs”.

Mariama, her mother and grandmother all belonged to the same man, referred to by Mariama as her “master”. From a very young age, Mariama worked as a domestic, herded the goats, gathered wood for the cooking, prepared food for the family and cleaned the house.

“For years, I thought that this family was mine. But as I grew older, I realised that the tasks I was entrusted with were different from the tasks of other girls of my age. I was treated differently, slept in different places and was regularly insulted and beaten.”

Still a teenager, Mariama was sold by her “master” to a man who already had four wives. As a “Wahaya” or slave wife, Mariama became both a domestic and sex slave.

She was just 17 when the Timidria Association managed to negotiate her release in 2001. Established in 1991, Timidria is a non-governmental organisation which fights against slavery.

Timidria and Anti-Slavery International estimate 43 thousand people remain enslaved in Niger. This is despite the abolition of slavery in 1960, its prohibition in 1999 and its being made a crime in 2003.

Immediately after her release in 2001, Mariama expressed a desire to learn to read and write. Eight years on that ambition remains a dream. She told her audience during the Durban Review Conference she cannot afford to go to school. Adult education is expensive. Mariama makes a living weaving carpets which are sold at the local market for the equivalent of US fifty cents each.

Mariama told her story of enslavement to the international community in 2001 at the World Conference Against Racism in Durban and then again recently at the Review Conference in Geneva.

She continues to speak out so as she says, “each victim of slavery can regain freedom and enjoy life.”

Last year, the Human Rights Council appointed the Special Rapporteur, Ms. Gulnara Shahinian on contemporary forms of slavery, its causes and consequences. Ms Shahinian says, “Stronger political will from Governments is needed to introduce respective changes in national legislation, enforce the laws and develop sustainable programs that would include education for law enforcement officials, fight against corruption, provide economic opportunities and where necessary compensation or rehabilitation for those who have suffered from slavery.”

The Outcome Document of the Durban Review Conference recognised that victims of slavery are particularly vulnerable to all forms of racism with women and girls being particularly at risk. The document stresses that contemporary forms and manifestations of slavery need to be investigated by different stakeholders and given greater prominence and priority to eradicate these practices once and for all.

15 June 2009