I n Niger Saturday, the government held a ceremony marking an official end to slavery there. Human rights groups estimate that there are as many as 43,000 slaves in Niger.
Anti-Slavery International’s Romana Cacchioli says the ceremony held near the Mali border is much more than symbolic.
She says, "The ceremony, which will address the population of In Ates, is being held in this area because a chief, who heads a group of nineteen Tuareg nomads, contacted my partner organization Timidria, saying he wanted to release 7,000 slaves under his authority. So the National Human Rights Commission was very keen to host the ceremony where they’re taking the opportunity to inform the population of the new law, which defines and criminalizes slavery for the first time in Niger."
The law, which was enacted in May 2004, imposes prison sentences of up to 30 years for practicing slavery. Ms. Cacchioli explains why the ceremony was held nearly a year after the law took effect.
"Niger is a vast country. And some areas, particularly areas like In Ates, are very inaccessible. And news can travel quite slowly. So that’s why it’s taken us time. In fact, the awareness raising is still continuing," she says.
She says the law is a historic step, but adds many challenges remain for Niger’s government.
"The greatest challenge is really the application of the law. And then we need to put in place insertion programs for people who have been victims of slavery. And to ensure that they are able to lead economically independent lives. The challenges are reaching these nomadic populations and providing them with adequate access to water, access to education and access to adequate health care," she says.
The legislation followed a survey conducted by Timidria, a local human rights group.
"In 2002 to 2003, Timidria conducted a survey in six of the eight regions of Niger where they were able to document the types of slavery and the prevalence of slavery in that country. And when we presented the results of the survey to the government, the government decided that they would amend the penal code to define and criminalize slavery in the country," Ms. Cacchioli says.
Timidria, whose name means fraternity and solidarity, was founded by a group of young Nigerians in 1991. It now has members across the country, many of them former slaves.
Most of those who are slaves in Niger were born into it. Their grandparents and great grandparents were slaves, too. Human rights activists say slaves are inherited and their children are taken away from them at a very young age.
Ms. cacchioli says, "Timidria has been working in helping slaves who have escaped their masters and reuniting them where it’s possible with their families. It’s not always possible because they are separated from their mothers often at the age of around two years old. Often they won’t know who their mothers are. So this is a difficult and slow process."
Anti-Slavery International estimates millions of people are in slavery around the world. It says slavery takes many forms such as human trafficking, forced labor, bonded labor and child labor.