DAKAR, Senegal — A West African regional court ruled Monday that the government of Niger had failed to protect a young woman sold into slavery at the age of 12.
The landmark ruling, the first of its kind by a regional tribunal now sitting in Niamey, Niger’s capital, ordered the government to pay about $19,000 in damages to the woman, Hadijatou Mani, who is now 24.
Slavery is outlawed throughout Africa, but it persists in pockets of Niger, Mali, Mauritania and amid conflicts like the one in northern Uganda. Antislavery organizations estimate that 43,000 people are enslaved in Niger alone, where nomadic tribes like the Tuareg and Toubou have for centuries held members of other ethnic groups as slaves.
Ms. Mani’s experience was typical of the practice. She was born into a traditional slave class and sold to Souleymane Naroua when she was 12 for about $500.
Ms. Mani told court officials that Mr. Naroua had forced her to work his fields for a decade. She also claimed that he raped her repeatedly over the years.
“I was beaten so many times I would run back to my family,” she told the BBC. “Then after a day or two I would be brought back.”
Ms. Mani brought her case to the court this year, arguing that the Niger government had failed to enforce its antislavery laws.
She had initially sought protection under Niger’s laws. In 2005, Mr. Naroua gave her a certificate freeing her, but when she tried to get married he claimed that she was already married to him.
A local court ruled for Ms. Mani, but a higher court reversed the judgment. In an absurd twist, Ms. Mani, who had gone ahead and married the other man, was sentenced to six months in jail for bigamy. She was released after serving two months.
“Nobody deserves to be enslaved,” Ms. Mani said in a statement. “We are all equal and deserve to be treated the same. I hope that everybody in slavery today can find their freedom. No woman should suffer the way I did.”
Slavery has long been tolerated in Niger. The Niamey government outlawed the practice in 2003, but it continues in the remote reaches of the vast, arid and impoverished nation that straddles the Sahara.
Antislavery organizations hailed the decision as an important victory against deeply entrenched social customs.
“For 17 years, we have been working towards bringing slavery to the attention of the authorities,” said Ilguilas Weila, president of Timidria, a Niger antislavery advocacy group, in a statement. “This verdict means that the state of Niger will now have to resolve this problem once and for all.”
The Community Court of Justice, the entity that ruled against Niger, is a judicial arm of Ecowas, a political and trade group of West African nations. The court, which can sit in any of the member nations, was created in 2000 and has made a number of important rulings.
But its limited ability to enforce them has sapped its influence.
Earlier this year, the court ordered the government of Gambia to release a journalist who had been missing for two years and was believed to be in government custody. Gambia ignored the judgment.