Hundreds of thousands of women are taken from their homes every year and forced to have sex for money. Sex-trafficking is defined by the US State Department as “the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for sexual exploitation through the use of fraud, force, or coercion” (Strege, 2008:98). There are approximately 800,000 women and children bought and sold annually worldwide. Nearly 200,000 of these come from Nigeria.
Trafficking of Nigerian women has been going on since the late 1980s and they are being sent to countries such as Côte d’Ivoire, Mali, Benin, Guinea, Cameroon, Gabon, Equatorial Guinea, Libya, Algeria, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Italy, Belgium, Spain, Netherlands, Germany, and Venezuela. An estimated sixty percent of these women wind up in Italy.
There are many different groups involved in the trafficking of women and children in Nigeria. Examples include: (1) forgers, (2) lawyers, (3) juju priests, (4) government officials, (5) sorcerers, (6) evangelists, (7) embassy officials, (8) police, (9) state officials, (10) border and immigration officials, (11) transporters, (12) receivers, (13) p imps, and (14) brothel-keepers. Abroad, the traffickers have established mafia-like organizations making it very difficult to infiltrate and take down these groups.
Many of these women are unaware that they will be working as prostitutes. They are told they will have legitimate jobs overseas such as nursing, baby sitting, maid, cooking, or other service-related jobs. Others are told they are being taken to Saudi Arabia for pilgrimage. Once they arrive in the destination country, their forged documents are taken from them and they are sold to a madam where they must work off a debt of up to fifty-thousand dollars in order to gain their freedom. In addition, they are required to pay rent, contribute money for food and the purchase of exotic clothing, and give gifts to their madam each month making it take even longer to pay off their debt.
Nigerian traffickers use a very unique method to control these women: religion. Rather than use physical force, they have the girls undergo traditional juju rights. Parts of their bodies such as hair, nails, menstrual blood, and pieces of their underwear are taken and placed before a traditional shrine where the girls are made to swear an oath of secrecy. These rites are conducted by a juju priest or sorcerer. The women believe these people can control their bodies from a distance or kill them and their families if they break their oath. Churches have also been known to take oaths to ensure the women’s loyalties.
There are many theories as to the reasons for sex-trafficking in Nigeria. The theory most often given is poverty. Due to unemployment, or working in a marginal job, these women do not make enough money to adequately support themselves. Many also lack the education and skills needed to obtain a job or earn more pay and so are vulnerable to trafficking which promises high-paying jobs outside of Nigeria. Other factors suggested are corruption, in that government officials take bribes to look the other way; and the idea of polygyny found in many traditional African cultures. Once the dowry money runs out, these women are often left to fend for them and their children on their own. Another reason is the idea that sex with a virgin cures HIV resulting in a high demand for virgins that traffickers can fulfill.
Many European countries have tried to help prevent human trafficking by introducing provisions for equality between men and women in their countries. However, I feel that until these programs attack the source of sex-trafficking, this problem will continue unabated. It is women and children that are the most common victims and, therefore, they should be made a part of the process. Helping women gain an education may make them less vulnerable to trafficking. This would allow them to obtain higher paying jobs and thus make them less desperate for money. Perhaps offering free education to women would encourage them to seek higher education. Helping them obtain jobs after graduation would also help. Another suggestion would be to educate government officials about the problem and try to reduce the incidence of bribe-taking. Until the lives of Nigerian women are improved, the trafficking of them will continue no matter what methods destination countries enact to help prevent this problem.
Leila McInnis is a graduate student in cultural anthropology concentrating in development and applied anthropology. She intends to go into international disaster relief following graduation.