Human trafficking in Nigeria: Sisters provide services, seek greater justice for all

by Eucharia Madueke


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See also, the stories of two girls who were trafficked from Nigeria and helped by sisters in Burkina Faso - One by one: Lost by Clare Nolan

Nigeria enacted a law in 2003 prohibiting the trafficking in persons and established the National Agency for the Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons (NAPTIP). Yet, from its porous borders, women and children continue to be trafficked within, across and beyond the country for forced labor and sexual or physical exploitation. Even babies are sold for money.

Nigeria remains a source, transit and destination country for human trafficking according to UNESCO. In 2008, the U.S. Department of State noted that 46 percent of transnational victims are children, with the majority of them being girls. According to the 2014 Global Slavery Index, an estimated number of 834, 000 Nigerians were living in slavery. NAPTIP reported in its Fact Sheet that the average age of trafficked children is 15 and that Nigerians make up 60-80 percent of the girls who are trafficked for sex trade in Europe. About 8 million Nigerian children are involved in exploitative child labor. In 2006, UNESCO ranked trafficking as the third most common crime in Nigeria after economic fraud and drug trafficking. In June 2011, the BBC reported that at least 10 children are sold daily across the country.

At the international conference on “Combating Human Trafficking” held in Rome in 2014, Pope Francis denounced trafficking in persons, calling it “an open wound on the body of contemporary society and a scourge upon the body of Christ.” He invited all to act to combat this crime against humanity. At the same conference, Cardinal John Onaiyekan of Abuja, Nigeria, acknowledged that trafficking has become an embarrassing social problem in Nigeria. Nevertheless, he praised the efforts of the women’s religious communities and lay activists there, calling them the “real foot soldiers” in the war against trafficking.

What forms of trafficking take place in Nigeria and why is trafficking in human persons a huge industry in Nigeria despite Nigerians’ collective value for abundant life? Why, regardless of the efforts to combat this nefarious industry, especially by the women’s religious communities in Nigeria, does this inhumanity to human persons continue unabated?

Trafficking in human persons is a global problem that is generally traceable to economic and social woes such as poverty, illiteracy, unemployment, corruption, greed and abrogation of parental responsibility. Economic forces have plagued Nigeria despite its rich human and natural resources. To escape poverty, many Nigerians continue to migrate to other parts of the world in search of greener pastures. Consequently, many Nigerian women and girls have found themselves in the hands of human traffickers whose agents unfortunately include women, often called "madams," frequently known by the victims’ families. The victims are forced to take an oath or made to enter into a covenant relationship with their recruiting agents. Escaping becomes a lesser option as they are held under the spell of fear of being harmed by the juju (voodoo) or fear of losing their lives or the lives of their family members.

While economic forces are to be blamed for contributing to the growth of this human trafficking industry, Nigeria’s social arrangements, its family and work cultures that place high social expectations on young people, and the poor societal attitude towards childlessness and children born out of wedlock should receive their fair share of responsibility for providing sustenance for this inhumane business.

Nigerians generally expect the young to contribute to the family economy. For this reason, it is very common to see underage children hawking goods in every nook and cranny of the country in an attempt to help provide for family needs. It is also an acceptable practice for family members, especially aunties, to take children, usually girls, from poorer members of the family to serve as maids while the child receives care in exchange for services. As the economic situation worsens, more Nigerian women enter the stressful and labor intensive workforce. Hands are needed for domestic chores. Children, preferably girls, are taken to both known and unknown families in the cities and beyond, often through a middle person, for domestic service. While the children provide services, their families receive pay for their work. When these children are placed in caring families, some of them have received education or marketable skills. But in other situations most have been abused sexually and physically, made to provide labor beyond their capacity, trafficked and even murdered.

Further, Nigerian society expects young adults to contribute to caring for both immediate and extended families, as well as to community development. When the young person is unable to meet this expectation, the individual is regarded as a failure, a nobody. Regrettably, young Nigerians with poor family backgrounds are most affected by this societal push and pull. When they are unable to stand the social shame and the poor social treatment, they give in to the trappings of traffickers’ recruiting agents, making them and their families vulnerable to the tricks of traffickers.

Another tradition that sustains human trafficking is the societal attitude towards childless marriages. Most Nigerians still consider marriages without the “fruit of the womb” an anomaly. This is evident in the constant prayers offered for couples looking for “the fruit of the womb,” in every religious and traditional gathering, asking that they be blessed with their own biological children. In their desperation for a child that could be accepted as their own, some childless couples have often engaged in secret / undocumented adoption. This situation has led to baby trafficking by baby harvesters and the abduction of young girls who are forced to bear babies that are then sold for an exorbitant price to desperate childless couples. In 2003, a renowned medical personage in Enugu, Nigeria, was found using his medical facilities to hold abducted and pregnant girls hostage. After having their babies, they were thrown out of the facility, and their babies were sold to desperate couples within and outside of Nigeria or sent to an unknown fate.

Moreover, the negative attitude towards children born out of wedlock furthers human trafficking. Today in some parts of Nigeria, having a child outside wedlock is considered a taboo and thus a shame to the family. When such happens, the young girl is kept away from the public eye, and when the child is born it is unwelcomed. In most cases, these children are left at the mercy of the unhappy family who determines their fate. Often these babies are placed in the hands of child traffickers.

One can rightly say that the Catholic sisters are doing their fair share as responsible citizens in combating human trafficking. Since the establishment of the Committee for the Support of Dignity of Women (COSUDOW) in 1999, the sisters have continued to raise the consciousness of many Nigerians to the danger of allowing young women to travel overseas in search of greener pastures. The sisters have traced victims’ families, reuniting victims of international trafficking with their families and communities, and provided victims with both spiritual and emotional healing.

Through training, they have also equipped the victims with marketable skills, reintegrating them socially and economically. The sisters continue to work in collaboration with the National Agency for the Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons, established in 2003, and other NGOs to ensure that both the trafficked individuals and their families are protected from extortion and reprisals from their exploiters and that those traffickers are punished. With the shelter built by the Episcopal Conference of Italian Catholic Bishops in Benin City and the house acquired in Lagos, both managed by sisters, the sisters are able to provide a welcoming home, rehabilitation and a skill training center for international trafficked victims.

While the sisters are educating the people about the dangers of international trafficking and providing succor to trafficked victims, they must also learn about, and educate the people about, the root causes of human trafficking, as well as domestic situations that sustain it. They must, without fear or favor, call their elected officials to their duties and responsibilities as well as hold them accountable for the poor socio-political conditions which have caused untold hardship and have endangered the lives of the most vulnerable Nigerians. It is their essential ministry to educate, rehabilitate and reintegrate the victims of the internationally trafficked. However, the sisters must be mindful of many young Nigerians serving as house girls and boys, be aware of the plight of young girls trapped in secret places as baby machines, and take to heart the fate of helpless babies who, in the name of secret adoption, are often placed in the hands of traffickers. The sisters must amplify the small voices of these victims by organizing to persuade their lawmakers to adopt and implement protective policies that will ensure the dignity of every Nigerian, especially women and children.

Nigeria enacted into law the Child’s Rights Act Bill in 2003. In 2013, it adopted its first National Policy on Child Labor and National Plan of Action for the Elimination of the Worst Forms of Child Labor. The sisters must persuade their leaders at both state and local government levels to adopt and implement the Child Protection Act. Justice requires that everyone, especially children, be protected. While these religious provide service for international trafficked victims, they must seek justice on their behalf and on behalf of all Nigerian children.

Nigeria’s Conference of Catholic Bishops’ pastoral of 1988 recognized women as agents of quiet revolution and urged Nigerian women to lead the struggle for change. Sisters must work together to mobilize the political will of their elected officials to legislate and implement protective laws, holding them accountable for their words and actions, and holding up the Gospel values before their very eyes. Seeking justice is not optional. Quiet revolution comes when we truly seek justice for all.

[Eucharia Madueke, a Sister of Notre Dame de Namur, completed her doctoral studies in Development and Public Policy in the department of African Studies at Howard University, Washington D.C. She is a community mobilization associate at NETWORK.]

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