The Shackles of Slavery in Niger

Slavery may seem like a historical relic, but in many parts of the world servitude remains prevalent. The United Nations estimates that there are 27 million slaves in the world, including victims of human trafficking, debt bondage, prostitution, child labor and serfdom.

And little seems to be reversing that trend.

In the western African nation of Niger, one of the poorest countries on Earth, despite being prohibited, slavery is rooted in the traditional customs and the culture of the country. There are more than 800,000 slaves in Niger -- more than 7 percent of the population -- and although some of their conditions have improved over the years, slavery remains a fact of life in this Saharan country.

Trafficking Report

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice presented a State Department report today on the problem of human trafficking.

"Trafficking in human beings is nothing less than a modern form of slavery," Rice said. "As President Bush has said, nearly two centuries after the abolition of the trans-Atlantic slave trade and more than a century after slavery was officially ended in its last strongholds, the trade in human beings for any purpose must not be allowed to thrive in our times.

"We must all work to end this terrible tragedy," she said.

The 150-country "Trafficking in Persons Report" focuses on the millions of people across the world who are victims of servitude and debt bondage. This type of slavery, involving millions of people every year, happens most frequently in an individual's own country and is often based on culture, heritage or lack of economic well-being. Rice said she hopes to raise awareness to counter the phenomenon of forced labor trafficking.

ABC News traveled to Niger with the help of London-based Anti-Slavery International to assess the situation of slavery in the landlocked nation where two-thirds of the population lives below the poverty line.

Scars of Slavery

Ioukhede carries the scars of a lifetime. She works long, hard hours in the sweltering heat of the African desert in Tichinbardei, 600 miles north of Niger's capital, Niamey. She is a slave.

"I am skinny not by nature but by the ill treatment I get," she said. "The day I come back with a broken bucket will be a bad day. I will be beaten."

She's afraid to rebel because she heard that her master had once killed a slave. "Some days I look for something to hit my master with but I'm afraid he'll turn around and might even kill me," she said.

Ioukhede lives with 50 other slaves in a camp and serves masters that live in the surrounding area.

Their masters are Tuareg nomads, descendants of an ancient desert culture that hasn't changed much in thousands of years. It is an inflexible caste system where the masters are at the top and the slaves lie on the bottom. Life is ordered with the men herding the animals while the women fetch water and prepare food.

"The life of a slave is no better than a mule," said Romana Cachiolli, the Africa-Programme officer at Anti-Slavery International. "They really work from before dawn to after dusk doing the most menial tasks," she adds.

Stand Up for Your Rights

Things started to change a bit thanks to Ilguilas Weila.

Weila, president and founder of Timidria, which means solidarity, a civil rights organization, is Niger's equivalent of Martin Luther King Jr. Since the 1960s, he's been fighting for the rights of slaves and the poor in his native country.

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