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Edo Women

Women sacrificed to sex trade in Nigerian city


BENIN CITY, Nigeria - A family friend arranged for Gloria to leave Nigeria to work as a prostitute in Italy. Blessing was approached by an aunt. A next-door neighbour organised the trip for Adeyinka.

Thousands of women in southern Nigeria’s Benin City — a run-down port of crumbling buildings and potholed streets where power cuts are frequent and jobs scarce — are encouraged by their desperate families to sell their bodies abroad.

“Our friend came to my house and said he could help me travel to Europe and make a lot of money. I wanted to help my mother. We are poor,” says Gloria, who was 19 at the time and among the youngest of a family of 19 children.

She ended up in Italy after a harrowing journey across the Sahara during which several women died of hunger and thirst.

She arrived in debt, and by the time she was deported back to Nigeria after eight months working on the streets, she was still penniless, having only managed to pay some of the $35,000 she owed her new madam.

“Those years were wasted. When I think about it I feel very desperate,” said Gloria, tears smudging her make-up.

Her story is sad but not uncommon in this city.

Trafficking women for prostitution became a problem in Benin City in the mid-1980s when free-market economic reforms led to massive job losses and impoverished many Nigerians.

At that time, the northern Italian region of Piemonte had strong business ties with Nigeria. And the fear of AIDS had made local prostitutes, who were often drug-addicts, less attractive.

Today, the Nigeria-Italy prostitution trade has become a sinister, self-propagating cycle.

Some women from Benin City, who worked as prostitutes in Italy returned with enough cash to build nice houses and buy cars. Successful ex-prostitutes became madams, recruiting young women from within their own community, where they were trusted.

Now, more than 80 percent of Nigerian women trafficked abroad to work in the sex trade come from Edo state, where Benin City is located, according to United Nations estimates. The main destination is Italy.


The problem is a nationwide one: Africa’s most populous country is a major source, transit route and destination for women and children who fall prey to people traffickers.

A 2005 report from the U.S. State Department found that thousands of Nigerians are smuggled every year to Europe, the Middle East and other African countries to work in the sex industry or as forced labourers, especially as domestic help.

One powerful factor fuelling the trend in Benin City is the use of traditional oaths to intimidate the victims.

Before they leave Nigeria, women are taken to traditional shrines where they swear to pay their debts to their madams and not to denounce them to the police.

The women leave fingernails, pubic hairs, soiled underwear and other intimate items at the shrines. These, according to traditional beliefs which are strong in Benin, give the priests power to harm them wherever they are in the world.

For the National Agency for the Prohibition of Traffic in Persons (NAPTIP), created in 2003, these oaths are just one of a host of obstacles they face in tackling trafficking. Others include lack of funds and poor policing.

“Our problem is that in many cases the victims do not want to testify. They are afraid of the shrines,” said Funke Abiodun, head of NAPTIP’s Benin office, which opened in July 2004.

Since then, two people have been convicted of trafficking in Benin courts, one has been acquitted and six cases are pending.

While this represents progress, it is not enough to stem the flow of trafficking. And Abiodun says that those who have been caught are “small madams”, while the “big madams” are at large.


The wider problem is the social context in a poor city, which nonetheless is not visibly poorer than many other Nigerian cities.

Activists say Benin has become a hub for trafficking because the recruiters are members of the community and the idea of women working as prostitutes to make money for the family has become acceptable over time.

“The parents themselves are pressuring their daughters to go to Italy. They make them feel guilty if they refuse,” said Grace Osakue of Girls’ Power Initiative (GPI).

GPI offers sex education with a feminist angle to hundreds of girls aged 10 to 18 in and around Benin. Osakue says girls have to be empowered in order to say no to their parents.

“In our society, the more you sacrifice yourself, the more feminine you are. We have to teach girls that their existence is not just about fulfilling the needs of men. Where you have not taught girls to be gender sensitive, your efforts are futile.”

GPI is just one of many Nigerian non governmental organisations, mostly led by women, that have sprung up in Edo state to try and prevent trafficking and help women who have returned from abroad with nothing.

At Idia Renaissance, named after a warrior queen from the ancient Kingdom of Benin, women who have returned are offered shelter if their families reject them. They can also take computer courses or learn catering, hairdressing or tailoring.

Gloria, Blessing and Adeyinka are trying to rebuild their lives here.

“I want a normal life. I will not travel again. It was pure hell,” said Gloria.   


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