Conversations around sex work and human trafficking in Nigeria cannot be had without referencing the 30-year tragedy that is Edo state’s intergenerational history of sex trafficking. Since the mid-70s, a steady stream of women and girls have been lured out of Benin City and it’s surrounding towns, some coerced by their parents to the shores of Europe. Some have it ‘easy’ flying straight to Napoli or Rome, but most take a treacherous route through the Sahara desert, smuggled by Arab rebels before crossing an unforgiving sea with little but the clothes on their backs to get to Greece, then Italy. But the destination is usually the same, forced prostitution in Italy’s cities and countrysides as a gateway point, then the rest of Europe.
But while we talk about how terrible it was and is, how we can and should find ways of ending the Sex trade pipeline, there is another vital conversation to be had. A simmering conflict whose long-term effects we’re only starting to see.
It is common knowledge that much of the current wealth in Edo state was brought in by current and former sex workers. A good percentage of the 30+ year-old women who were born in and currently reside in Edo state are returnees who were either deported or managed to leave Europe after years of deception, torture, violence and forced sex work. These women were traumatised and were forced to suppress their trauma for fear of humiliation and public ostracisation. Many women never even speak about the things they experienced, even though it is often a barely veiled secret they were involved in sex work. With what we know about how unresolved trauma is either internalised or transferred unhealthily when it is not properly resolved, we can only imagine the horrors these women are still going through, and the trauma they are inflicting on others as a coping mechanism.
These women need help, in the form of therapy and otherwise, and no one is giving it to them. These women need to see public empathy from the government in their favour. The stigma around forced sex work needs to be dispelled with adequate awareness and sensitisation. There is so much that needs to be done, so much. But at least therapy is a good place to start.
Every year women are deported from Libya and Europe and sent home without any more than a perfunctory STI test and they are somehow expected to successfully reintegrate into society. It simply cannot work.
The centre cannot hold.