The shocking abduction, and no return, of the 300 Nigerian schoolgirls has entered its fourth month. Fears for the fate of the girls have been escalating since they were the stars of a viral video released by their captors, the extremist group Boko Haram, just a few weeks after they were taken. The minute-long clip panned in, then out, of a dry field in an undisclosed location. The girls sat fearfully, huddled together in long grey burkas which covered their hair, but not their faces. It remains the only proof the girls may still be alive.
Thus began the social media-driven ‘#BringBackOurGirls’ campaign. Despite its many controversies and false starts, it offered some international solidarity for not just the girls taken from Chibok but for other trafficked women around world. The global outrage highlighted the urgent need to fight for the rights of countless women lured from their homes, hideously exploited – and never returned.
Worries have begun to mount, especially after Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau’s admission that he was going to sell his female captives, that the girls may have been separated, pooled into smaller groups, then trafficked as sex slaves to Europe, Asia or other African destinations. This, of course, is one of the many working theories on what might have happened to the girls. Nothing is confirmed.
Several weeks ago, unconfirmed reports from Associated Press flooded international news cycles claiming Boko Haram had struck once more. Allegedly the group kidnapped another 60 girls from villages close to Chibok along with a host of young boys.
All these incidents have turned the global attention to human trafficking – a multi-billion dollar international industry which operates in a hidden network of alleys and dimly-lit apartments, where women’s lives are traded alongside money, illegal drugs and weapons.
Going Undercover To Report
Tobore Ovuorie, an investigative journalist with Nigeria’s Premium Times, says six out of 10 people trafficked to the West are Nigerian. She has spent the bulk of her career studying the human trafficking trade and even lost a friend because of the industry. Last year, with support from an Amsterdam newspaper, Ovuorie went undercover for seven months to find out how the African trafficking syndicates worked.
Posing as a sex worker, Ovuorie saw, first hand, the terrible realities of the trafficking world. There were the orgies, a seemingly endless supply of controlled drugs and bags full of hard currency. First Ovuorie was taken to a ‘boot camp’, which all the girls had to endure before being moved to Italy. It was there that she saw an even darker side of the business. Two of the women she was with were beheaded in front her. Ovuorie claims that the group that owned them also sold human organs on the black market.
“It was the worst moment of my investigation,” she says.
Eventually, Ovuorie escaped the syndicate at the Nigeria-Benin border. She says that she walked away from the experience, “bruised and beaten, but still alive”. She has since written about her time with the traffickers although some passionate skeptics have questioned the credibility of her account.
But that was the least of her worries.
“When I returned to write the story, I feared reprisal from the syndicates and I fear I will have to watch my back for the rest of my life. Forgive and forget isn’t written in the dictionaries of these monsters,” she wrote in an email.
Despite the controversy around it, Ovuorie says she does not regret telling her story.
“It was worth it. Human trafficking is increasing in Nigeria.”
Lured For Work, Food, Even Love
A majority of human trafficking activity is far more insidious and calculated than the tactics of Boko Haram. In South Africa, the Durban-based anti-trafficking group, Umgeni Community Empowerment Centre (UCEC), understands this well. Their counselors have rescued scores of underaged girls soliciting on city streets especially within the local red light strip, Mahatma Gandhi Street. The girls come from a mix of backgrounds, some born in Durban while some were brought in from cities further afield like Harare, Dar es Salaam and Maputo.
It may be a different context from northern Nigeria but the impact is just as devastating. Far removed from the higher echelons of piling statistical reports and complicated legislation, counselors, like the ones at UCEC, deal with the gritty, often terrifying realities of the trafficking netherworld. The women they help are mostly drug addicts and emotionally-scarred. Trust is a rare commodity amongst these women and going home, full of shame, is never an option.
Joy Conradie, a UCEC counsellor, says these women are unwittingly drawn into the trafficking world by promises of work, money, food, clothing and, in some cases, love.
“The targeted victim is spotted, be it in a club or simply getting onto a taxi,” she says, “the traffickers will make contact and they are very charming and highly manipulative.”
Conradie says the women are usually force-fed drugs and once they become addicts, the “free party ends and the nightmare begins”. The traffickers then demand payment for the drugs. The trafficked women, now addicts and destitute, are trapped by the debt. Left with little choice, they are forced into prostitution to pay their dues. Often, refusing to sell their bodies leads to them being “beaten, raped, threatened and isolated until she gives in”. This, unfortunately, is only a single scenario. Trafficked women across the world face a diversity of abuses.
“The girls are often moved from city to city and even across borders,” Conradie claims, adding the youngest victim they have helped was just 12 years old. The irony of this kind of sexual slavery is that it is largely driven by a desperation to escape poverty which traffickers exploit with offers of jobs that don’t exist.
Conradie says it is not just poverty that allows trafficking syndicates to flourish. A lack of education and awareness within the communities where victims are sourced also contributes to the trafficking cycle. But the lack of economic options also exacerbates the situation.
“We also come across sheer desperation in child-headed households, where an older teenage girl will prostitute herself in order to feed her younger siblings,” says Conradie.
To combat human trafficking, she says, more safe houses need to be provided for victims, as well as far stricter border controls, skilled rapid response teams to investigate human trafficking cases, and comprehensive intelligence gathering to understand where and how trafficking outfits operate.
The International Labour Organization (ILO) said in May that forced labor in the private economy draws in around $150 billion in illegal profits each year. Two thirds of this figure comes directly from the sex trade.
The organization’s Director-General, Guy Ryder, said that this added “a new urgency [for] efforts to eradicate [this] fundamentally evil, but hugely profitable practice, as soon as possible”. The report also claimed that there are approximately 21 million people bound by forced labor and trafficking around the world.
Legislation to fight trafficking syndicates has been, slowly but surely, implemented across Africa and the world. In South Africa, every province has an assigned Anti-Human Trafficking Task Force. However, their power is limited. The global nature of human trafficking implies not a local, but international solution.