Wed, Sep 26, 2018 - Page 9 News List

Nigeria’s trafficking curse: The battle to dispel the black magic behind sex slavery

The leader of the historic kingdom of Benin in March gathered ‘juju’ priests to dispel the curses placed on sex workers trafficked to Europe, but traffickers quickly found a new market, tricking women into sex slavery in the Middle East

By Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani  /  Thomson Reuters Foundation, BENIN CITY, Nigeria

Illustration: Mountain People

When Florence broke out in lesions on her face, she was convinced it was because she had crossed a black magic curse cast on her as she left Nigeria to work in Russia’s sex trade.

Florence is one of a rising number of women lured in the past few years from impoverished lives in southern Nigeria to Europe with the promise of lucrative work, many ending up selling sex.

Although some of the women knowingly entered into contracts for sex work, few realized they would be trapped like slaves for years, with their traffickers colluding with madams to ensure black magic curses, or juju, stopped them escaping.

For belief in juju to kill or maim is deeply rooted in Edo State, the home of about nine in every 10 Nigerian women trafficked to Europe, according to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, with a battle now waging to end witchcraft’s hold over trafficking victims.

Florence, 24, said she had not known she was headed for sex work six years ago, when she agreed to a loan to fund a trip to work in Russia in a deal brokered by a pastor from her church.

Before leaving her home in Benin, the capital of Edo, she was taken to a juju priest who used her hair and clothing to make a spell to bind her to her traffickers. She was then taken to Lagos, where she was raped before being sent to Russia.

“They took my pants. They took my bra. They took my pubic hair from my armpits and also from my private parts,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. The madam “used those items she took from me to take as vengeance against me.”

She was convinced that juju was to blame for facial lesions that erupted in 2016 after she refused to give her captors any more money after paying them 45,000 euros (US$52,591) and fled back to Nigeria.

SPELLS AND CURSES

Florence’s fear of black magic if she disobeyed her traffickers, went to the police or failed to pay her debt is typical for many women trafficked from Nigeria, experts have said.

Many end up enslaved after signing a contract to finance their move, leaving them with debts that spiral into thousands of US dollars and take years to pay off.

From 2014 to 2016, there was an almost 10-fold increase in the number of Nigerian women arriving in Italy by boat — about 11,000 — with at least four in five becoming prostitutes, according to the International Organization for Migration.

However, law enforcement officials and campaigners are hoping the intervention this year by Oba Ewuare II, leader of the historic kingdom of Benin, could end the burgeoning trade.

In March, the oba summoned the kingdom’s juju priests to a ceremony at his palace and dismissed the curses they had placed on trafficking victims — and cast a fresh curse on anyone who went against his order.

Since then, anecdotal evidence from people involved in the trade suggests that the trafficking has slowed, although it is too soon for firm data to be collated.

Patience, 42, who has supplemented her income as a hairdresser by selling girls into overseas sex work for about 16 years, said the leader’s ceremony had stopped the trafficking.

“I didn’t hear directly from his mouth, but through the radio and television. The oba has stopped everything,” Patience told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in her home in Benin, where she lives with her husband and four children. “Whenever I go out, I meet girls who beg me to take them to Europe, but I refuse, because I don’t want to die. Everybody is afraid.”

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