A woman once forced into a life of sexual slavery and domestic labor has filed suit against the government of Niger. The case is being heard by the court of the Economic Community of West African states. The court, which has jurisdiction in all ECOWAS member states and is normally based in Nigeria, is hearing this case in Niger's capital, Niamey. VOA's Nico Colombant reports from our regional bureau in Dakar.

Hadijatou Mani is accusing Niger's government of failing to implement 2003 laws against slavery.

The case started Monday with several witnesses appearing before the court, including other former slaves, as well as Mani explaining her case.

A legal advisor helping her, Helen Duffy, usually based in The Hague, but now in Niamey, says the case is very significant.

"It is an opportunity for the victim in this case to get recognition of what she suffered for many years, but also for the practice of slavery to be exposed and for the state to be held responsible for its part in its failure to prevent slavery and for some ways encouraging it over many years," said Helen Duffy.

British-based Anti-Slavery International says Mani was sold when she was 12 for about $500 and forced to carry out unpaid work, while being beaten and sexually abused by the man who bought her.

The group says there are still more than 40,000 slaves in Niger. Human-rights groups based in Niger say the number is actually in the hundreds of thousands, and that common law still allows the practice.

Niger's government calls those figures exaggerated. Officials say the 2003 law against slavery is being implemented, and that traditions are hard to break, but that authorities are doing everything they can to make sure laws are respected.

The new legislation sets sentences of up to 30 years and heavy fines for people convicted of keeping slaves, but very few cases involving slave owners have come through the court system.

Ilguilas Weila, the head of a Niger association called Timidria, says much more still needs to be done.

He says there are still three types of slavery, what he calls active slavery in rural areas, whereby people are still sold, passive slavery whereby members of lower castes work on land for members of higher castes in a feudal type of system, and city slavery, which he says affects many children who are forced to work for families other than their own.

In Mani's case, when she was released from slavery, she decided to marry a man she had freely chosen, but the man who had previously used her as a sex slave, said she was his wife.

A court found Mani guilty of bigamy and sentenced her to six months in jail.

Duffy says the government should be held responsible for allowing such a court decision to be made, despite the 2003 anti-slavery law.

"The problem in this case is not so much that the law in itself is inadequate, but that it is simply not applied," she said. "[The government] has to make sure that those that are applying the law know about the law, and understand the law, and understand the phenomenon that is being addressed."

She says the trial in Niamey, which is expected to last about one week, could help make the law clearer both for Niger and for other ECOWAS states where some critics say forced labor, especially among children, seems to be growing.