Abduction of schoolgirls highlights Nigeria’s booming sex trafficking industry
On April 14, nearly 300 Nigerian girls were abducted from their dormitories in a school in the northeastern town of Chibok. News accounts reported that Boko Haram, a terrorist group affiliated with Al-Qaeda, claimed responsibility for the abduction and said they sold the girls as child brides. At this point, it’s not clear how many girls have been sold, if any. But a man claiming to be Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau said in a video released by the international media on May 6: “There is a market for selling humans. Allah says I should sell. He commands me to sell. I will sell women. I sell women.”
This is hardly the first time Nigerian children have been kidnapped en masse for the purposes of sex—in fact, Nigeria is the birthplace of a sex-trafficking pipeline that leads directly to Italy. In 2007, an article in the December issue of IRIN, the UN news service, stated that Italy was the key destination for trafficked women and girls. The sex trade has been booming since the 1980s, when organized criminal syndicates in Europe began preying on economic migrants seeking opportunities abroad. Experts say the trafficking is only getting worse.
When the Italian government first began to pay attention to the problem in 2001, the term “sex trafficking” was still relatively unknown. A comprehensive U.S. Department of State report called “Trafficking in Persons” released that year was only about 100 pages long—light reading compared to the 416-page volume published in 2013. U.S. Ambassador Shirley Barnes, former director of Western European affairs for the U.S. State Department, told me that when Antonio Puri-Purini, deputy chief of the Italian Embassy, approached her in 2001, even he had trouble articulating the issue.
“He said they were having a real difficult problem in Italy that they didn’t know how to solve, but it had to do with women who were being brought to Europe from Africa and they were being prostituted,” Barnes told me.
In 2004, Barnes, president of the nonprofit organization the Barnes Findley Foundation, which specializes in international development and relief, compiled a report detailing her findings. The document was presented as part of the United States Congressional Record and painted a devastating picture of exploitation, government corruption, and coercion spreading as far as Canada and the United States. Women from Nigeria and Ethiopia, in particular, were being taken from their homes either by force or by trickery. Once in Italy—an ideal transit point for smugglers due to its miles of coastline—women are raped and drugged, then turned out.
“Even the police sometimes pay for sex,” a former sex worker given the pseudonym “Frida” told The Daily Beast in April 2013. Frida, who lives in Rome—in Italy, prostitution is not illegal—now works at a shelter for abused women. “There is no protection there from anyone,” she said. “There is no one you can trust.”
Barnes’ report also found that sex-trafficking was directly connected to the increase in HIV/AIDS among Nigerian women. Barnes writes: “The fear of infection with HIV/AIDS among customers in the sex industry has driven traffickers to recruit younger and younger women and girls, erroneously perceived by customers to be too young to be infected.”
Desperate to bring attention to the issue, Barnes took her message on the road. “I went around the States, talking about the issue itself,” Barnes told me. “My ideal wish was to build awareness and to have some organization take this on. Nobody did.”
Later, media attention would be focused on victims of trafficking from Asia, Eastern Europe, and Latin America, and the problem in Africa would be largely ignored, despite the fact that the majority of non-Europeans trafficked within Western and Central Europe are African women, according to an annual report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNDOC).
Although I didn’t know it at the time, I, too, had actually had a personal encounter with the Nigerian sex trade in Italy between 2001 and 2004.
It happened while I was studying abroad as a college student in Florence. As I would walk to class along the beautiful cobblestoned streets each day, men in cars would pull up alongside me and mumble discreetly. It wasn’t long before I realized they weren’t just asking for the time.
Finally, an Italian girlfriend explained it to me. Many of the black women in Florence were prostitutes, brought there from Africa against their will.
I asked: Why, specifically, Africa?
She pointed to my bare wrist. “They love this dark skin,” she said.
But it wasn’t all about skin color. The sex trafficking trade has proven to be remarkably lucrative. Human trafficking is a $35 billion industry, according to a recent report presented to the European Parliament by the Special Committee on Organised Crime, Corruption and Money Laundering. The crime syndicate behind the smuggling is a network of mafia cells and complicit members of law enforcement connected across the world, second in scope only to the drug and arms trade, Barnes' report found.
I asked Pablo Castillo-Diaz, a peace and security protection specialist at UN Women, what might be driving this juggernaut. He warned against oversimplifying an issue that involves myriad economic and cultural variables, but he did point out two major factors: “The biggest game-changer is about globalization and transnationalism,” he said. “I think it’s harder for criminal gangs to do this to people locally—it works more effectively if the victims are completely uprooted from their community.”
Recent EU figures estimate that one-third of all trafficked women in Europe can be found in Italy. And Nigeria, with one of the highest rates of human trafficking in the world, continues to be a favorite source for smugglers, according to recent reports by the UNODC.
And, in that context, it may not be difficult to imagine that the April kidnapping of 276 Nigerian schoolgirls by Boko Haram was motivated more by profit than religious ire. In fact, Amnesty International recently told Foreign Policy that the girls “are likely being sold for cash to raise funds for the cause.” Despite Nigeria’s thriving oil industry, nearly 62 percent of the country's citizens live in extreme poverty, according to the CIA World Factbook.
In Barnes’ 2004 report, she made clear that reasons for trafficking of African women and children vary from country to country. But she also warned that choosing to ignore a base factor—destitution—would only hasten a coming disaster: “Human trafficking in West Africa will not be eradicated until widespread poverty is effectively dealt with.”
More articles by Category: Girls, International, Violence against women
More articles by Tag: Sexualized violence, Africa, Trafficking