18 November 2011

Nigeria: Thousands of 'Sex Slaves' Still in Mali

She has just finished learning hair dressing as a trade and longed to own a shop of her own but has no money. She met a man who told her she has better prospects working as a hair dresser abroad and that he has connection with people there who have shops and are looking for people of different trades including hair dressing. He collected 50,000 naira for passport and other processes and she began the journey to the job of her dreams which saw her ending instead as a sex slave in Mali.

This is part of the story narrated by one of the over 100 girls recently rescued and evacuated from Mali by the National Agency for the Prohibition of Traffic in Persons and Other Related Matters(NAPTIP).

The 29 year old victim's story like that of the other girls often starts with promises or offer of jobs in Europe, long journeys by road in commercial buses, handing over to madams or resell from one madam to the other, seizure of travel documents , phones and other means of communication, to a life where they are forced into prostitution, and made to sleep with about 20-35 men per night with the proceeds going back to this madams who are most times Nigerians supposedly to pay back debts incurred for their travel, made to go through rituals and oaths of secrecy to forestall exposure to the police and literally become a slave .

The 104 evacuated girls are grateful and happy to be rescued from the gory and dehumanising experiences they had in Mali but seems it is not yet uhuru on menace of trafficking in the country as many more are still stranded back there and other countries , and many more still susceptible and gullible to the antics of modern day traders in human beings.

According to the Executive Secretary of NAPTIP, Mrs Beatrice Jedy-Agba "Several thousands of Nigerians are still stranded in Mali as well as other African Countries including Bukina Faso, Niger, Senegal and Cote d'Ivoire."

She said nine suspected traffickers were also repatriated from Mali with the support of the Malian authorities and are currently being interrogated for information relating to the crime.

The Agency had conducted a fact-finding mission to Mali in September last year following disturbing and "horrendous reports" reports from a variety of sources including victims, aid workers, clergy and the Nigerian Mission in Mali which led to the discovery that thousands of Nigerian victims have been deceived and transported to Mali among others.

Mrs Jeddy-Agba said the fact finding mission also revealed the existence of many brothels in Bamako, Mopti, Kayes, Sikasso, Gao all in Mali. "Further investigations revealed that some victims are driven for 3 days from Moussa park in Cotonou to Bamako on the banks of the River Niger in the dead of the night shown the bright lights of Bamako and told that is Europe and that only CFA 500 will cross them over.

Once they arrived Mali , they are forced into prostitution, their passports and phones confiscated by the madam so that they lose touch with their contacts in Nigeria and those that try to escape are not able to because they are stripped of all their finances, putting them under debt bondage."

She said the girls among them have been forced into prostitution and sexual slavery in most inhuman of conditions mostly in filthy shanks; they are sold for about 2 million naira and made to work as slaves and many of them sold form one madam to another.

"The boys amongst them are stranded and forced to sleep in open parks and beg for food to survive. Most of the victims are identified to be from Edo and Delta and most of the stranded boys are from the South East." She said

According to Barrister Simon Chuzi Egede, the former NAPTIP boss who led the fact finding mission last year they team discovered there were hundreds of brothels, populated by young Nigeria victims of human trafficking, owned by Nigerian "madams" who force them to work against their will and take their earnings. "We are talking of thousands and thousands of girls. We are talking of certainly between 20,000 and about 40, 000."

He said the girls are held in bondage for the purposes of forced sexual exploitation, and servitude or slavery like practices, "The girls work against their will. The madams control their freedom of movement, where they work, when they work and what they receive."

Mr. Egede said, "The exploiter of the girls or those who purchase sexual services are not allowed to buy them drinks or take them outside the environment of exploitation. The money is not paid to them but to the senior girls and the payee is allowed to scout and examine the human 'merchandise' before taking the object of his pleasure for a time. The girls cannot receive calls or make calls. These merchandise are heavily protected as they are brought into the brothel at 8pm everyday and are taken away to their hideaway at midnight. I visited two brothels and could not stand it anymore when I saw how the girls sat on two wooden platforms facing each other numbering about 40. Those who seek sexual services will walk in the middle and choose any girl after payment to the senior girl."

Stories abound of abortion clinics too where foetuses are removed by marabouts for rituals to prepare victims for the hazards of the journey and save them from inexplicable circumstance of death.

He said countries like Mali, Cote d'Ivoire, Burkina-Faso, Niger, Libya , Morroco and Cape Verde have featured as a major transit countries for victims of human trafficking from Nigeria. "Their strategic location along the migration routes to Europe through the desert has placed them in the unwholesome position as the huge receptacle for victims before crossing Europe."

The earlier mentioned victim only got to know the true nature of the job when they got to Mali, the 'good Samaritan' who claimed to have connections handed her over to someone else who made the trip with her through to Cotonou to Mali and on getting there , a woman joined them and she was told she has come to the end of her journey and all other things she will be doing. Her protest that she is a hair dresser and wants only to practice the trade fell on deaf ears as she was told she has to pay back 1 million incurred for her trip.

Her escort said he has done his part and left her to the woman who locked her for 3 days and then began forcing her to sleep with several men the following nights. They tried administering an oath on her so she wouldn't escape or expose them when arrested but she declined and promised to do everything they wanted of her.

The Visa phone she travelled with and her 10,000 CFA was also seized. She met other girls there who have resigned themselves to fate, her desire to escape was compounded by the language barrier she had as only Bambara and French was spoken in the area. She found herself in a life and torment she never imagined she could have nor bargained for. In her words." The men were very dirty."

She only managed to escape after gaining their confidence by doing their will until the day the madam told her to stay indoors that she heard members of the Nigeria police were around in the country looking for traffickers. She saw it as her golden opportunity when the woman was not watching, pretended to buy something and ran to the police station and the police followed her to her place of captivity, the woman fled but the other girls with her were arrested.

All hands must be on deck in curbing this menace as the deception into trafficking is not done by unknown middle men, but sometimes by close relatives, friends , colleagues and other people we may trust. A case in point is of a particular victim who was rescued last year by the agency from Bamako Mali. She said a friend of hers, a former staff of Sheraton and Towers facilitated her trip there through the use of charm and hypnosis as she recalls that they left Abuja for Lagos to buy items for sale and all she knew was that she found herself in an unknown place behind Paradise Hotel in Bamako, Mali. There she was able to get the sympathy of the woman placed in charge of watching over the trafficked girls and used her phone to make a call to her father who reported to NAPTIP .

Mrs Jeddy-Agba said dealing with the problem of cross border trafficking would require a heightened level of commitment and cooperation on the part of all Nigerians and our development partners. "In order to tackle this growing menace , there is need to take a holistic and coordinated national approach to address predisposing factors such as poverty, ignorance, unemployment and the gradual erosion of our cultural and ethical values."

She said there was also need to step up public awareness drives by all stakeholders; increase law enforcement and in this connection, all security agencies, particularly those at the border posts have to live up to this challenge and contribute their quota to the elimination of this crime.

The NAPTIP boss said that while it is necessary to continue to repatriate thousands of Nigerian citizens stranded in several parts of Africa , it is important to note that they must be rehabilitated, empowered and reintegrated back into society in line with the National Policy on Protection and Assistance to Victims of Trafficking.

She called on all state governments to support this effort by providing enabling environment to enhance this counter trafficking initiative and local Government councils must also complement the efforts of the state Government through effective oversight of identified environment of exploitations and child abuses in their locality.

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