Nigerians forced into prostitution abroad need practical and spiritual help
PEOPLE who campaign against the ghastly phenomenon of human trafficking and sex slavery soon become aware that they are contending not only with flesh-and-blood wrongdoers but also with invisible forces which, if nothing else, are very much alive inside people’s heads.
One of the most notorious North-South rackets involves transporting young women, often minors, for sex work in Italy and beyond from Nigeria, in particular the southern area around Benin City. That part of the country has a powerful Christian presence, from Catholic to Pentecostal, but it is also a stronghold of traditional animist practices, including witchcraft. Its sex-slave trade has existed for three decades but it seems to have burgeoned recently. The International Organisation for Migration estimates that in 2016, some 11,100 Nigerian women landed in Sicily, and 80% entered a life of forced prostitution.
Before she is spirited off to Europe, the bond between a victim and her trafficker is often sealed with a voodoo ritual in which she surrenders pieces of clothing, fingernails and body hair; these fragments may be combined with drops of blood into a mixture which the victim is made to drink. This terrifies the young woman into thinking that curses will befall her family unless the debt to the trafficker, which can be around $50,000, is paid off.
According to Eugenia Bonetti, a Catholic religious sister who heads an NGO called Slaves No More, one of the many tragic consequences of all this is that young Nigerian women who are expelled from Italy or are helped by charities to return home can find themselves ostracised by their own families. Christian religious orders in Nigeria try to look after these returnees but they are treated as social pariahs.
In March, an attempt was made to tackle this problem by fighting fire with fire. Ewuare II, the oba (king) of the Benin region of Nigeria (not to be confused with the country of Benin) conducted a kind of counter-ceremony. It was announced that the monarch had cursed all those involved in trafficking and released all those who had been bound by voodoo rituals.
Almost everybody who works to combat trafficking has welcomed the news, but many feel it is only the first step on a long battle to stop a social scourge.
Ms Bonetti has argued that prostitution on the streets of Italy will not be curbed unless the authorities, secular and religious, restrain demand. She wrote recently:
When will the day come when the government of a culturally Catholic country tackles the problem of prostitution with decent legislation, and treat payment for sex as a crime, as many European countries have done, with good results?
A typically cautious welcome for the monarch’s move was given by Osas Egbon, president of Associazione Donne di Benin City, an Italian-based organisation of former Nigerian sex slaves who support compatriots that remain in captivity. She calls the royal gesture a historically important step but doubts whether it will alleviate the girls’ deep-rooted terrors. “They believe in juju, this voodoo ritual that traps them with fear. They trust in God, but also in traditions,” she says.
Whatever may be happening in the psychic realm, she adds, these girls will not actually leave the streets until they find a way to integrate into local Italian society. The Italian authorities should be active in helping victims of this trade to find protection and employment, "otherwise their post-liberation life will not make sense,” Ms Egbon says.
Oriana Cannavò, who heads another Sicily-based NGO working in the field, describes the voodoo rituals as part of powerful mixture of threats and false promises which enable traffickers to get inside the heads of their victims. On one hand, the young women are promised “reputable jobs” in Italy; on the other, grisly ceremonies can be a way of overcoming their hesitation and making them feel they have incurred a kind of spiritual debt as well as a huge financial one. “Once the spell is cast, the girl is obliged to do anything the “priest-witch” orders her to, otherwise she believes her family will be in danger,” Ms Cannavo adds. Such terrors will not dissipate instantly.
If the victims want to stay in Italy and lead a normal life, they face enormous obstacles, says Aldo Virgilio, a psychiatrist who counsels traumatised migrants. “They are not allowed to talk to anyone without the criminals’ permission, so they rarely have a chance to learn Italian, which socially alienates them even more in their already dire situation,” he says. “Most cases I deal with are either referred to me via NGOs or the police. They would rarely come up to me directly, they’re frozen because of fear of breaching voodoo rules.” He said he had treated a 14-year-old girl who was in hospital after enduring violence. In such cases, bringing victims to a minimum of psychological stability can take a year.
Amina, a former victim of sex trafficking who did not want to disclose her last name, calls the king’s edict a first step, but no substitute for practical steps to overcome the victims’ social exclusion. From her base at the Casa dei Popoli, a support centre for migrants in Catania, she offers advice to Nigerian women who are still working as prostitutes. For her, taking that job and offering worldly tips to her still-enslaved sisters was a personal escape route, from enslavement to both traffickers and voodoo curses.