BENIN, Nigeria (WOMENSENEWS)–Squat, with a missing tooth and a pencil-thin tattoo that rings his torso, the trafficker greets a visitor in his boxer shorts. Because what he’s describing is illegal, he won’t give his name, but he happily lays out the nuts and bolts of his business.
To get to Europe, either pony up for costly fake visas or risk crossings of the Sahara and the Mediterranean. Protect your business by having clients swear black magic oaths. And if you’re going to let someone pay on credit, make sure it’s a woman.
"In most cases, a man has difficulty paying back, but in the case of women, it’s not like that," he says. "It’s easier for women to make it without a working permit."
That’s because most women who leave this tropical city end up on the rainy streets of northern Italy, where Nigerians form the largest percentage of foreign prostitutes. In Nigerian and Italian nongovernmental organizations, Benin has become known for its prostitutes.
Some estimate that more than 80 percent of the immigrants from this West African country who are working Italy’s streets come from this mid-size municipality or the surrounding Edo State. Though a government crackdown making prostitution, trafficking and being trafficked illegal has slowed the trade, it has not stopped. Instead, it has gone underground, enabled by an informal network of traffickers, by parents seeking easy income and, most of all, by the inescapable poverty awaiting those who refuse to go.
Sex Trafficking of Girls Is a ‘Family Issue’
"The issue of trafficking is a family issue," says Grace Osakue, head of Girls’ Power Initiative, a Benin-based organization focusing on the rights of girls. Often it is a girl’s parent who seeks out a trafficker and requests that she be sent to Italy, she explains.
As a foreign prostitute, a girl can make far more than Nigeria’s average income of less than a dollar a day; and though she may have to pay as much as $50,000 to the madam who sends for her, everything she earns after that is hers to keep or send home.
Nigerian girls are seen as "dispensable," Osakue says. "When trafficking became popular they realized, ‘Oh, she’s good for making money,’" Osakue says.
In Benin, there has been little stigma associated with the trade. Until recently, successful traffickers boasted about what they did. They saw themselves as helping the community–facilitators for families looking for some extra income.
Besides, the trade was lucrative. Many were themselves ex-prostitutes. Women who came back to build big houses–called "Italos" here–often returned to Europe to "sponsor" others. "Every girl who travels and who doesn’t get deported is a potential sponsor for more," Osakue says.
Economic Impoverishment Discourages Prostitutes from Returning
Embarrassed by Benin’s reputation as the capital of prostitution, Eki Igbinedion, the wife of the governor, took up the issue, and used state newspapers, radio and television to raise the stigma.
The Italian government, too, has cracked down, according to the Washington-based Advocacy Project. It began mass deportations of Nigerian women when it repatriated 64 prostitutes in 1999. Since then, chartered planes fly back every few months, loaded with more. In Nigeria the women are often in detention for weeks before being released. And then, there’s little reason for them to stay.
There’s no major industry in the city. Nor is there the reliable electricity, telephones or water needed for small companies to survive. Most residents scrape a living from commercial trading, wood carving or bronze working. Benin’s major employer, the state government, recently fired 3,000 employees and replaced them with 800 earning lower wages, according to Osakue.
"Since there is really nothing on the ground, it’s an effort of futility trying to bring them back," says Sister Florence Nwaonuma, 39, a Roman Catholic nun who works with at-risk girls in Benin.
The "skill-acquisitions center" where Nwaonuma works as a counselor, is supposed to give job skills to girls who might otherwise want to leave. But it has had little success.
Few of the roughly 500 girls who have passed through the program have found jobs. Some work as hairdressers. A couple others–the school’s biggest success story–found employment at a local fast-food chain. And with the focus on prevention, programs like the center offer little for deported women, who are seen as being resistant to intervention. "Deportation simply tells us that they have not made up their minds to come back," Nwaonuma says.
That is not always the case, however. A Rome-based program run by the International Organization for Migration has helped 13 girls return voluntarily. One of them, Itohan Osamuyi, 19, is an energetic teen who says she was tricked into going to Italy and escaped before she was put on the streets. According to Osamuyi, the main push towards Italy comes from the lack of opportunity.
"If after school was finished, there was work in Nigeria, we would not leave our country," Osamuyi says.
With a little funding from the International Organization for Migration, Osamuyi realized her dream this spring of opening a shop. But her refrigerator-sized space in the crowded market where she sells baby wares seems stocked less with merchandise than with optimism.
"Sometimes I will be in the market from morning to night and I won’t sell one naira," the equivalent of 75 cents, Osamuyi says.
Stephan Faris is a freelance writer based in Lagos, Nigeria, who covers Africa.
The Advocacy Project:
International Organization for Migration: