Advocacy on human trafficking

Editor's note: Feb. 8 is the International Day of Prayer and Awareness Against Human Trafficking and the feast day of St. Josephine Bakhita, a Canossian nun and former slave. The date was chosen at the request of women religious to highlight her life. In honor of the day and St. Josephine Bakhita, we are running several pieces about sisters' anti-trafficking work around the world. Find all of our coverage here.

Nigerian sisters have set out to change the statistics on human trafficking in their country.

The Africa Faith and Justice Network-Nigeria is a network of Catholic women religious from different congregations that advocates for justice, good governance and other matters, mostly relating to women and children. We gathered in Benin City, Edo State, Nigeria, recently to talk about human trafficking in the country.

Edo State has the highest percentage in trafficked persons, especially teenage girls. Statistics show that over 90 percent of people trafficked in the country are from Edo State, and 92 percent of Nigerians trafficked for the sex trade in Europe are from Edo State. Many of those are being prostituted in different parts of the world, especially in Italy.

In our advocacy action, we visited Ujiogba community in the Esan West local government area in Edo State, and other communities in the same state. We wanted to enlighten and sensitize the people on the menace of trafficking in persons, so we met with community heads and some chiefs, as well as elders, women and youth. The communities we visited welcomed the gesture, and were so delighted to host the Africa Faith and Justice Network-Nigeria. 

A sergeant in the anti-human-trafficking unit in Edo State was invited to join the network in the fight against human trafficking in the state. She highlighted the deceptive and subtle ways traffickers — appearing to be friends or well-wishers of the family — cajole parents to let their children go for better opportunities outside the country. One of the ways they entice parents is with money, and with promises to take care of their children. Parents willingly let their children go with the traffickers when the traffickers take time to build the parents' trust.

Traffickers also promise better job opportunities overseas and quality education. In another strategy, peers or friends will convince each another about a better life in another country, or they will be influenced by movies and other enticing stories. Since it is the peers or friends who are encouraging them, they fall prey to any trafficker because of their vulnerability.

It's even worse than it sounds. These traffickers sell their victims like commodities from one hand to another until they get to the last buyer. Those who buy these teenage girls dehumanize them as sex machines, forcing them to sleep with at least 10 men a day. This is really horrible. You can imagine the terror and pain they go through, and their parents have no idea of what their children have been turned into.

Most parents don't ask the traffickers vital questions like: What is the address where you live? Where are you taking the children? What kind of job do you have for them? Blinded by the trust the traffickers cultivated with them, the parents get excited and forget the most important questions.

Once these children leave the shores of Nigeria, they are sold into prostitution to make money for their “boss” and pay back their purchase price by their slavery. When some of the parents heard this at our presentation, they shuddered. A great number of the people we spoke to have one or two relatives or children in different countries. Some families don't know what their relations or children do in those countries.

Sometimes these children — destined to be Africa's tomorrow, but now turned into prostitutes by their slave masters or mistresses — eventually are able to tell their parents about the dehumanizing work they do. Some parents will regret giving their children out, while others will encourage them to endure and not come back. This is because they believe that their children will bring money back to them.

Turning these trafficked teenage girls into prostitutes carries many health hazards. A number of them contract sexually transmitted diseases and other diseases because they are forced into this ugly way of life.  

We also spoke to the youth present about skill acquisition. Learning different skills will enable them to concentrate on building up their capacity and becoming employers of labor in the future. Some of the youth with skills in different fields were asked if they were happy with the skills they have acquired. They unanimously answered yes. They further said that their work pays enough to support themselves.

Africa Faith and Justice Network-Nigeria challenged other youths to learn a skill instead of going outside the country for the so-called “greener pastures.” We reminded them of the many opportunities in Nigeria and Edo State, and urged them to take those opportunities to better their country and to become leaders of tomorrow.

 In the course of our conversation and interaction with them, a woman shared a concern with me. She said she expresses concern to her women friends about allowing their girls to go with strangers (who claim to be “relations”) to other countries without knowing what they actually do there. Some of the women didn't listen to her because their own children are not outside the country. She was discouraged about speaking with them again. But our visit encouraged her not to give up.

The leaders of the communities expressed their profound gratitude to Africa Faith and Justice Network-Nigeria for taking the bold step to educate, sensitize and enlighten them and their people about the horror of trafficking in the state. They agreed with us that it is shameful to hear that our state is the highest in human trafficking. They promised to network with the sisters in the fight against human trafficking and other offenses against women and children!  

[Teresa Anyabuike is a Sister of Notre Dame de Namur. She is the coordinator of Catholic Community Self-help Association, a department in Justice Development and Peace Mission, Ilorin diocese, Kwara State. She likes working with children because of their simplicity, which challenges her.]

Don't miss GSR's two-part series exploring how black spirituality has shaped religious life for black women. Read part one.