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Exploitation and coercion

Can Nigerian women consent to be moved to Italy to work as prostitutes or, from a radical feminist perspective, consent to their own exploitation? Moreover, to what extent is that putative consent influenced by a spectrum of coercive means and methods. The main common characteristic linking Nigerian sex migrants in Italy is poverty. This commonality is interpreted in strikingly polarised ways by those interviewed as part of this study. Some interviewees accept the desperation of those seeking an escape from deprivation for themselves and their extended family as a core driver of sex migration, and as such a form of coercion, whilst others deny absolute need, downplaying this form of economic coercion, but rather emphasising an individual’s personal economic motives, sometimes characterised as ‘greed’, as the main incentive.

Interviewees indicate gradations of deception. Some report many women totally deceived as to the nature of work that they will be required to undertake with sex work not being mentioned. For example, Gabriel Odu of the Nigerian Television Authority argues that,

Most Nigerian women agree to migrate to Italy without understanding the full implications of what they are getting into. Look at the recent cases of Nigerian women trapped in Mali en route to Europe, some of whom have been deported, and when you interact with these women they tell you they were told that they were going to work as nannies, hairdressers, all kinds of jobs but not prostitution.

The evidence indicates that Nigerian women are frequently recruited by family, friends and acquaintances rather than strangers. According to an interviewee from the International Labour Organisation (ILO),

The recruitment pattern used by the Nigerian traffickers is such that usually there is a middleperson between the madams and the women. It is usually like a chain. Most women are recruited by people who know them, it could be a friend, a friend’s friend, an uncle, a cousin, or somebody that knows somebody within the chain. And the common method used is usually the idea of a job as a nanny, working in the restaurant or some other unskilled job and then they are given the impression, or they portray, how the streets of Italy are lined with euros and how it is easy to make money.

Thus, the impression is given of readily available, well-paid, employment in Italy. Most interviewees relate examples of the recruiters’ deception, how they build a facade of authenticity by insisting on seemingly standard business practices such as requiring a recruitment fee to be paid; the signing of ‘legal’ agreements drafted by genuine solicitors; travel arrangements made in apparently authentic travel agents, and how they eloquently describe the future that awaits the recruit in Italy, ‘an Eldorado’ where ‘the streets are paved with gold’.

That a majority of women are deceived as to the nature of their ultimate employment is, however, challenged. For the majority of interviewees, most recruits are aware that they will be required to work as prostitutes. The pivot is the extent to which they are aware of what this entails. This can vary from a fundamental ignorance of the nature of prostitution to total ignorance of the conditions, often manifestly exploitative, under which they will be working in Italy. A representative of an Abuja-based NGO, Children Youth Protection Foundation (CYPF), as well as an officer from Nigeria’s National Agency for the Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons (NAPTIP), raised the specific issue of recruitment from Edo, a Nigerian state with a long history of sex migration (Adesina, 2005). The extent of recruitment in Edo, as well as the associated media and social publicity, has led to the state being targeted by law enforcement and criminal justice agencies. On these bases, the CYPF and NAPTIP interviewees are sceptical of claims that those recruited could be unaware of the specifics of their intended employment. Indeed an interviewee from the Nigerian Immigration Service (NIS) gives examples of women from Edo state paying their own way to work as prostitutes in Italy.

A key distinction, however, needs to be made between a general understanding that the employment opportunity in Italy will be sex work and a more specific understanding of the relationship between sex workers and their madams and pimps, and the reality of the activities that they will be expected to undertake. This reality often includes more customers than they expect or are led to believe; a violent and constrained working environment; as well as financial rewards that are much less than anticipated, controlled by the madams and pimps and from which ‘repayments’ are directly taken. Rebecca Sako-John of Nigeria’s League of Democratic Women (LEADS) accepts that there are women who agree to be moved into prostitution, but argues that ‘the reality is that they are still deceived in some other way and are also ill-treated when they arrive the destination country’. Njau Mumbi of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) in Abuja, stresses that the level of accurate information that a woman receives when recruited and moved out of Nigeria differs and, owing to intrinsic methodological constraints, is very difficult for practitioners and researcher to determine. However, Njau cautions against conflating human smuggling with human trafficking merely because, ostensibly and intuitively, the procurement of women for prostitution seems to suggest exploitation.

A further, and related, factor complicating an assessment of exploitation is the role of coercion, whether physical, psychological or economic. A particular form of coercion, repeatedly cited by the interviewees in cases of Nigerian women moved to Italy for prostitution, is the use of voodoo or ‘black magic’ in the form of a ‘juju’ oath administered by juju priests employed by the recruiters. Although there is no uniform way of administering the oath, the process often involves the use of plants or herbs which are mixed with other substances, including blood from animals or birds, to make a mixture which the women are made to drink. Personal items like hair, nails and body fluids are also taken from the women and retained by the juju priest. According to an interviewee providing care to former prostitutes, prior to leaving Nigeria,

the women are usually taken to meet a juju priest who oftentimes is resident in an isolated environment; some have their shrines in the bush or forest and even those that live among other people use a room that is especially dedicated as a shrine for an idol. The very environment of the shrine is enough to make anybody afraid. Sometimes it involves the use of sacrifices that involves the killing of goats and chicken and the women may be asked to eat some of the flesh raw.

Another care provider with the Italian NGO Caritas describes the pact between women and recruiters as ‘backed by an oath where some personalised items of the girls such as panties, nails, menstrual blood, pubic hair and hair from the armpit are taken from the women to seal the agreement’.

The importance of the juju oath in the functioning of the transnational movement of women for prostitution from Nigeria to Italy, as well as other destinations, has been recognised by researchers and practitioners for some time, although details remain imprecise. Amongst those interviewed for this study, a regular response was to stress the ubiquity of juju in Nigeria, and Edo state in particular, and its habitual and daily practice as an ancient traditional religion that pre-dates the arrival of Islam and Christianity which continues as a parallel ritualistic activity observed by many as sacred and socially cohesive. For example, albeit in diminishing circumstances, oaths administered by juju priests retain some status in Nigerian customary law. Indeed, one interviewee emphasised the distinction between the system of oaths traditionally used to guarantee contracts, particularly in Igbo communities, and the rites that are given to migrant sex workers which do not always include the explicit taking of an oath. The use of juju is intended to draw on the atavistic beliefs inculcated through family and community, reinforced by intimidating rituals combined with the promise that serious harm or death will befall those who transgress the rules or disobey their madams and pimps. According to one of the care providers,

Harm will come upon the person who tries to play smart with the other. It is this practice that traffickers now use to instil fear in their victims and because the victims also believe in the fact that the juju will work they are afraid to do anything contrary to what they agreed with the madam.

The strength of juju as a coercive mechanism is emphasised by an interviewee from the Italian Ministry of the Interior,

We know that almost all Nigerian women trafficked into Italy are subjected to the juju oath which stops them from speaking out on their experiences. When we try to provide them with some support they will usually escape, only to return to the trafficker again. Our understanding of it is that trafficked women who take the juju oath virtually lose the will to act for themselves as they live in fear of doing anything that will break the oath.

Another interviewee, however, returns to the common and customary practice of juju oaths to seal contracts, claiming that women who wanted to travel and work in Italy would expect to have the financial settlement for transport and employment formalised by juju. In these circumstances, whether or not the woman was later exploited, the juju ritual should be seen as customary rather than coercive,

The purpose of the juju oath is no different from what it had always been used for. It is not meant to enthral the women, but as a means to seal a contract which is traditionally acceptable in Nigeria. Yes, it also instils fear in the women, but only to the extent that they keep to their side of the bargain. Don’t misunderstand me because I can see the look on your face, I am a woman and having worked with victims of human trafficking I don’t deny that the women suffer abuses and are exploited. But I have heard people say that ah it is the oath that kept the women in a condition of slavery. And I would usually ask them if the women were forced to take the oath. Like I have said before, the oath is simply a way of protecting a mutual agreement between two people.

Yet, other interviewees, stress the unequal nature of these ‘mutual agreements’ as being far short of quasi-legal ‘contracts’ with consideration on both sides. The woman is required to take on a heavy debt for her transport, accommodation and subsistence regardless of whether she consents or agrees to the sums demanded. The size of the debt is often not disclosed. Most interviewees agree that Nigerian woman moved into prostitution in Italy are not aware of the amount of money they will need to pay once in Italy. Because, even in the few cases where the women are aware of an obligation to repay some money in Italy, the exact amount is never disclosed and the women are led to believe that the amount will be readily repaid from their earnings. According the interviewee with the Italian Ministry of the Interior,

Another common practice with Nigerian women trafficked into prostitution in Italy is that they are also subjected to debt bondage and until they fully pay the debt they cannot regain their freedom. Although some of the women from Edo state are known to have paid their way to be moved to Italy, the proceeds of their prostitution is moved back home through their pimps and Western Union and the first few years in Italy is spent earning money in prostitution for the trafficker. In the long run, if they are not deported they get more and more involved with other criminal activities such drug trafficking.

In addition to the psychological and economic coercion of the juju oath and debt bondage, interviewees, including Sako-John and Richmond Iheme of Nigeria’s National Human Rights Commission, detail physical violence, or the threat of violence, by madams and pimps against Nigerian prostitutes working in Italy. This use of violence to punish or enforce compliance includes rape. Beyond physical pain, Manuel Carballo, the executive director of the International Centre for Migration, Health and Development (ICMHD) in Geneva, emphasises the deliberate psychological impact of rape on the women, degrading their self-worth and, since women who have been raped are traditionally ostracised from the community, emotionally tying the victim to her rapist/pimp. So beyond, or alongside, the fear engendered by the juju oath, this variation on the Stockholm Syndrome, a psychological condition whereby victims subconsciously develop positive feelings for their abusers, represents a further mechanism to maintain compliance.

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