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With scars that will never heal, one woman fights human trafficking

Isoka Aikpitanyi, was born in Benin City, Nigeria, in 1979. Since 2000 he lives in Italy. Having been a victim of slavery for three years in the Italian roads, managed to reach personal freedom, risking their own lives. Since 2003, thanks to the association "Girls in Benin City," helps the many girls who are victims of trafficking who, like her, are forced to leave their homeland and arriving in Italy. The year 2007 saw the release of the book "Girls in Benin City," written with the journalist Laura Maragnani, published by "Melampus" that clearly exposes the problem and that makes us live with our eyes his past.

When Isoke Aikpitanyi boarded a plane in Benin City, Nigeria, she dreamed of a new life in Europe. She found a nightmare instead.

In debt and in the grips of human traffickers, Aikpitanyi began working as a prostitute on the streets of Turin.

She was jeered at, humiliated, raped, beaten and nearly stabbed to death.

"You can't imagine before you come that you're going to end up a slave," Aikpitanyi said in an interview in the elegant main square of Aosta, where she now lives. "You don't realize that the world has returned to an era of slavery."

Her story mirrors that of tens of thousands of women from Asia, Africa and Eastern Europe who have been lured to the West by the prospect of well-paid work as salesclerks or in factories.

Once there, however, many find that the organizations they used to handle the travel arrangements had criminal intentions in mind.

Documents are withheld. Women find themselves isolated and are frightened into thinking that they will be deported if they turn to the authorities for help.

Many are forced into prostitution, especially - as Aikpitanyi discovered to her horror - if there is a substantial travel debt to repay (€30,000, or $42,000, in her case) and a large family back home to support.

But three years after Aikpitanyi's nightmare started in 2000, she plucked up her courage and escaped.

She renegotiated her debt and moved in with a man - a former client - who had begun to counsel men about sex addiction.

Word traveled fast on the street. Former colleagues began showing up on her doorstep, asking for help. She took them in.

Laura Maragnani, a journalist with the news weekly Panorama, met her and they collaborated on a book, "The Girls of Benin City," which was published in March and is now in its second printing.

Aikpitanyi has met with top officials of the Italian government and has presented the book in dozens of venues.

She has spent countless hours talking to prostitutes across the country, showing them that a way out exists. She is looking for funding so that her ad hoc halfway home can become more institutionalized, and offer more privacy.

"I made a promise with myself that I would help them, as a sort of therapy to heal a wound I know will never heal," Aikpitanyi said. "Sometimes all they need is someone to listen."

In recent weeks, rounding up prostitutes - and fining young men who try to wash windshield at traffic lights - has started a heated political debate in Italy on security.

"It seems to me that when politicians say it's time to clean up the streets they're washing their hand of the situation rather than tackling the real problem, which is trafficking," Aikpitanyi said angrily. "Once again, it's the victim who ends up paying."

There are no statistics on the number of prostitutes in Italy who came to the country hoping for better lives. Maragnani, Aikpitanyi's co-author, who frequently writes about human trafficking, said that various unofficial estimates put the number somewhere between 10,000 and 35,000. "But no one can really say," she said, because there are no reliable statistics on illegal immigrants.

There are no statistics either on the number of prostitutes who are raped or who die on the streets.

"When an Italian woman gets raped, people care," Aikpitanyi said. "When it happens to a black woman or a foreigner it's like, well, she had it coming to her. They don't even look for the rapist."

Compared with many countries, Italian legislation in support of women trying to escape sexual exportation is very advanced, experts who study human trafficking say.

A 1998 law encourages, but does not force, women to testify against their traffickers before they receive assistance, which includes a six-month renewable residence permit to look for legitimate work, as well as training opportunities.

Most national legislatures require women to press criminal charges before they receive assistance.

The law is "designed to help victims gain charge of their lives," said Eva Biaudet, who is responsible for combating trafficking in human beings for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. She works in Vienna. "It's more positive about their future survival in general, and that means there's less risk of being re-trafficked."

What remains worrying, Biaudet said, was the amount of trafficking. "The supply is endless." she said.

A study carried out this year by the Italian government of the program that assists sexually exploited women indicates that over a six-year period starting in 2000, more than 45,000 women, mostly from Nigeria and Eastern Europe, received some sort of social assistance here. About 11,500 entered into a protection program and half of those received a residency permit.

"The law doesn't judge the victim and gives her a chance to recover physically and psychologically," said Alessandra Barberi, who coordinates the assistance program.

But Maragnani, the journalist, said that while the law may be advanced, "it's generally not applied." She said that final decisions over what assistance is offered are left to the discretion of local police departments, so there is no consistency. Moreover, few traffickers end up in prison and clients rarely face charges, "even though many prostitutes are underage and it's illegal to have sex with a minor in Italy."

These days, Aikpitanyi dreams of inaugurating her home for women, of getting married, of having a child. On the surface, life is good.

But her book implies otherwise. She writes: "Outside I am calm and strong and I try to fix things. But inside, instead, nothing is right. Not even for me. Inside I am full of rage, and shame. Because I am here and I am alive." Others, she goes on, did not make it.

Source:The new York Times and Brookly

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