Niger makes history as first country to ratify the Protocol on Forced Labour

May 14, 2015

The West African nation of Niger made history this year by becoming the first country to ratify ILO’s Forced Labour Protocol. This decision marks a major victory for the fight to end modern slavery in a country where tens of thousands of women, children and men continue to live in bondage.

Photo: Aïr mountains, Niger


Niger is one of few countries on Earth where it’s still possible to be born into slavery. But the country has a remarkable story to tell thanks to the leaders who have struggled against the practice since the nation gained independence in 1960.

In 1961, the country ratified the ILO’s Forced Labour Convention. Then in 2002, it adopted national legislation to outlaw slavery, with strong penalties for anyone convicted of holding slaves—the first West African country to do so.

This year, it reaffirmed its commitment to ending modern slavery by becoming the first country in the world to ratify the ILO’s Forced Labour Protocol.

“This is the logical next step to fighting this plague infecting [our] society,” said Niger Employment Minister Salissou Ada.

ILO Director-General Guy Ryder called it, “an extraordinary moment.”

“By being the first country to ratify the Protocol, Niger has ensured that it is well on the way to entering into force,” he said. “This gives hope to the millions of women, children and men still trapped in modern slavery.”

Niger Employment Minister Salissou Ada "signs up" to end modern slavery at the 2015 International Labour Conference in Geneva, Switzerland.

In the Tahaou region, for example, girls born into slavery are sold as “fifth wives” through a custom known as wahaya and are subjected to sexual exploitation and forced work as domestic helpers. They’re typically traded when they’re between nine and eleven years old. Their own children are also born as slaves.

Nigerien boys can also be born into slavery and forced to work as farmworkers and shepherds, or as beggars on city streets.

“It’s the slave who ploughs the field, keep the herds, raises the master’s children, performs all the housework , etc. He can’t marry without the consent of the master” explains Samaila Ibrahim, Coordinator of the ILO project against forced labour and discrimination in Niger.

Even when slaves do manage to gain their freedom, they still face discrimination as members of an inferior caste.

These traditional forms of slavery exist side by side with more modern forms, such as human trafficking, which see young women from Niger traded to Nigeria, North Africa, the Middle East and Europe and forced to work as prostitutes.

There are still over 59,000 women, children and men in Niger who are living in slavery or slave-like conditions, according to a report by the National Statistics Bureau and the ILO.

For all of these victims, Niger’s ratification of the Forced Labour Protocol is a promise of hope. For the world, it’s a clarion call to follow Niger’s example and take the “logical next step” towards eradicating modern slavery once and for all.