Nigeria has one of the highest rates of human trafficking in sub-Saharan Africa. An active network of Catholic sisters is determined to change that by providing help to survivors and conducting education campaigns to prevent others from being victimized.
“Because trafficking of persons is on the increase despite efforts to end it, it has become one of the main projects of our ministry,” said Sr. Gloria Ozuluoke of the Religious Sisters of Charity. She added: “It is part of our ministry – not just on special days set aside to campaign against human trafficking, which we marked with prayers and training for women and youth. Other days, we also train people and do advocacy on human trafficking. It’s a way of bringing to an end the social ills of human trafficking.”
A 2020 report by the U.S State Department on Trafficking in Persons say Nigerian trafficking victims, “often exploited by Nigerian traffickers,” were found “in at least 36 countries in Africa, Europe, and the Middle East. … Nigerian women and girls are subjected to sex trafficking within Nigeria and throughout Europe, including in France, Italy, Spain, Austria, and Russia.”
Of the more than 181,000 migrants who travelled by sea from Libya to Italy in 2016, more than 37,000 were Nigerian, with Nigerian women and unaccompanied children accounting for 11,009 and 3,040 travellers, respectively, according to a 2017 report by the International Organization for Migration, the most recent such data available.
In 2019, the National Agency for the Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons (NAPTIP) identified 20,000 trafficked Nigerian girls in Mali alone.
A small, organized group known as Link Sisters, or the anti-trafficking team, exists in every community of the Religious Sisters of Charity. Appointed by the regional leader, the Link Sisters report to the coordinator in the congregation, Sr. Justina Nelson, about any suspected case of human trafficking for immediate action that would lead to the rescue of the victims.
Through a group chat on WhatsApp, the Link Sisters share information, coordinate their activities and take action against human trafficking when needed. Specifically, they use it to mobilize and strategize against the different schemes used by the traffickers. Rural families are often targeted by traffickers with false promises of jobs and scholarships in the cities. Parents give up their teenage and sometimes younger children, who are then exploited in brothels or labour camps. Even local athletes are vulnerable, with football players being approached for “opportunities” abroad which really turn out to be trafficking rings or for harvesting human organs.
“They ensure that they organize programs and identify with people at the grassroot so they can receive information of any moves for human trafficking,” Sr.Ozuluoke said of the Link Sisters. “They also organize awareness programs with local parishes, schools and hold town hall meetings.”
Sr. Ozuluoke’s congregation is among many spreading the word on human trafficking in the country. Several congregations under the Nigeria Conference of Women Religious and non-profits across the country are working together on projects against human trafficking. Organizations like Talitha Kum, UNANIMA International and Misean Cara are also part of the sisters’ networks of partners against human trafficking. “We engage in collaboration, networking and advocacy,” Sr. Ozuluoke said. The strategy is to “educate people not to get even trafficked or get into the dangers in the first place,” she said. “That is why we ensure we do training, raise awareness and do advocacy programs wherever we are.”
Her congregation also helps to rehabilitate trafficked persons and makes referrals to religious communities with shelters, like the Committee for the Support of the Dignity of Woman – an anti-trafficking non-profit organization and home for victims established in 1999 by the Nigeria Conference of Women Religious. More than 50 women religious congregations are members of the organization, which provides counselling and rehabilitation services.
Fighting internal trafficking and against child abuse and child prostitution is also at the heart of the works of the sisters. Children from poor families are often given to other Nigerians as housemaids where they are subjected to inhuman treatment such as rape, hawking, street begging and/or branded as witches by their caregivers.
Sister Ozuluoke says this leads to internal trafficking and smuggling. She and other women religious and members of other non-profits have engaged in street demonstrations against this practice to raise awareness and discourage it.
As Pathfinders Justice Initiative reports, it’s estimated that 75% of those who are trafficked within Nigeria are trafficked across states, while 23% are trafficked within states, according to a NAPTIP report from 2016, the most recent data available. Only 2% of those who are trafficked are trafficked outside the country.
“Internal trafficking is on the increase, not just only external trafficking,” she said. “If someone who is a minor is a housemaid and being sexually exploited and their dignity is being denied, we educate them to know that they can also be used for organ harvesting or when they are taken to Europe by a relative, they can be used as housemaids and later turned to slaves or sold into prostitution.”
Many boys and girls are exploited as domestic workers and trafficked and their parents are not aware, added Madueke. She has specifically organized awareness programs on abuse of children. “They think their children are in good hands but that is often not the case.”
The sisters face obstacles fighting and campaigning against human trafficking in Nigeria. Sociocultural factors sometimes contribute to this, especially when community leaders and parents are resistant and not open to learning about the dangers of human trafficking. Sr. Ozuluoke says they cannot be deterred by the challenges.
“Sometimes, the survivors can be re-trafficked even when they are back if they are not followed up,” Sr. Ozuluoke said. “We are not deterred by the challenges because we have always devised new ways of being able to reach out to people and ensure that they have the right information and to empower the women and the girls because most of the time they are the victims.”
Official access to public schools for awareness campaigns on human trafficking has become a problem because of bureaucracy, she said. The COVID-19 pandemic has also exacerbated the situation. But the Ministry of Education in Lagos state recently granted the congregation approval to carry out awareness programs on human trafficking in public schools in the region while maintaining COVID-19 safety protocols. That is good news for the congregation and the work they do, Sr. Ozuluoke said.
Despite the challenges, the sisters are still optimistic and say the work must go on. For them, prayer and action will help in ending human trafficking and bring healing to victims.
Sr.Ozuluoke is happy about the progress made so far and the work ahead. “The success of this work is that people have been empowered and young girls are being able to recognize that they can actually report abuse and say ‘no’ and someone will listen to them,” she said. “Men and women and girls and boys are able to recognize these issues. For us, human trafficking is an emerging societal ill that we will continue to fight against.” (Patrick Egwu/GSR)