Exploited women end up on the streets of many European countries: especially Italy and Spain, but also France, Britain and The Netherlands. The majority of Nigerian women victims of trafficking and forced into prostitution, however, come from the same place: the State of Edo, in the southern part of Nigeria. Here, in 2005, a survey conducted by a local organization has shown that
One in three young women has been approached at least once by human traffickers.
Poverty, social discrimination, unemployment, even the pressure of the family for a journey seen as the harbinger of wealth, persuaded many of them to accept to leave for Europe after their exploiters had promised them a job. The overall figures are unknown, but according to data released in 2014 by the UN at least 10% of women victims of trafficking in Western and Central Europe are Nigerian.
Focus on prevention. “Not always these women ignore what they will do, maybe some of them are aware of the reality of prostitution in Nigeria, but they don’t realize the scope of the exploitation mechanism which they are bound to become a part of, nor the debt they will contract with the criminal organization, and the trauma of leading this kind of life. Only when they finally realize they decide to ask for help, if they ever do”, said Onomen Oriakhi, head of the program against human trafficking of Caritas Nigeria. Oriakhi is a lawyer. She started to deal with this issue after having worked in other initiatives for the protection of women promoted by the Church. Her office is located in Benin City, capital of the State of Edo, its main task is to coordinate all the initiatives in which the Catholic Church plays an active role. These are: the Committee in support of the dignity of women (Cosudow) set up by the Conference of Nigerian female religious leaders, the refuges for victims, the priests who address this issue in their homilies along with meetings at local level which Onomen personally takes part in. All of these initiatives focus on the
prevention of this phenomenon.
“It’s hard for these women to return as they were before they left. They went through a very difficult life and it’s the only one they know – said the Caritas coordinator -. Helping them reintegrate into society can be very complicated. Moreover, they need lifelong psychological support, thus early intervention is crucial.”
Collaboration is indispensable. The Church’s efforts revolve around two areas in particular: local economy and public awareness. “It is necessary to improve the material conditions of the families and make these women aware of their rights, so they may become aware of their role in society and reject whoever attempts to abuse of their dignity”, Oriakhi pointed out. While the first goal is implemented in particular through microcredit and programmes for support to vulnerable families, the second has various dimensions. The most important of which, in the medium term, is promoting the education of children and youths, not only in schools.
“Prevention also means trying to educate people not to celebrate richness – the lawyer said -. One of the problems that young women escaped from trafficking have to face is the gap separating dreams from reality. In fact, they had imagined they could easily get rich, but now they are back in Nigeria and they have to start from scratch.”
The latter attempt often clashes against the hostility of society and of the families of origin, who in turn tend to believe that going to Europe means “getting rich quick.” Such marginalization could be countered also outside Nigeria, according to the Caritas coordinator. “Closer relations with European authorities could help change the situation for young women who had imagined a better future and experienced its collapse instead”, she said. “Once they are sent back to Nigeria they also risk falling again into the hands of the traffickers – she pointed out. “It is necessary to identify a way to ensure that those who don’t intend to return to their home Countries, also for fear of the criminals’ retaliation, can remain in Europe legally.” In fact, in many cases the criminals put into place traditional rituals (juju) as additional means of coercion, whereby the victims fear the consequences of their unpaid debt to the criminal organization or in case they denounce their exploiters.