Saving Nigerian girls from sex slavery, By Ifeanyi Nwoko, NAN

There were startling revelations recently on how Nigerian girls were used as sex slaves in some West African countries. The Director-General of National Agency for the Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons (NAPTIP), Julie Okah-Donli, let the cat out of the bag when she said that over 20,000 Nigerians girls were in Mali working as sex slaves.

Nigerian Ambassador to Burkina Faso, Ramatu Ahmed, re-echoed that over 10,000 Nigerian girls were working as sex slaves in that country.

Those who commented on the issue decried the resurgence of slavery, in another guise, that was abolished in 1833, via the Slavery Abolition Act, and stressed that urgent measures must be taken to tackle this menace headlong.

In December 2018, Okah-Donli disclosed that over 20,000 Nigerian girls were in Mali working as sex slaves.

Addressing the ECOWAS Parliament, she said that the girls were sold for between N210,000 and N240,000, and expected to pay back about N1.2million through sex slaving before regaining their freedom.

She told the parliament that: “Some of the girls arrived in their school uniforms, meaning that they were kidnapped on their way to or from school.

“There are more than one million Nigerians residing in Mali; about 20,000 of these Nigerians are girls believed to be victims of trafficking and the number increases by 50 per day.

“Many victims are deceived to leave their livelihoods in Nigeria for greener pastures in Mali.

“Some of the victims were abducted from Nigeria, including those that arrived in their school uniforms,” she said.

Okah-Donli who led a fact-finding mission to Mali disclosed that though the girls were forced into sex slavery; after regaining their freedom decided to become “madams of their own to deal in new girls.’’

She said that some of the girls were unwilling to return to Nigeria as they were now used to the “sex for gold trade.’’

Okah-Donli said that many of the victims who were rescued in 2011 and some others in 2017 came back to Nigeria, only to return with more girls.

“The traffic madams are well known to the Nigerian community, but they are afraid to report them because of the complicity of the Malian security agencies, especially the gendarmerie that assist the traffickers to carry out their activities.

“Nigerian victims are way-billed from a motor-park in Cotonou, dropped at Sikasso near the border with Burkina Faso, from where they are picked by Malian gendarmerie for delivery to their madams.

“The Malian authorities collect taxes from the victims on a weekly basis and sell condoms and other medications compulsorily to their victims every month.

“Malian women are already grumbling that Nigerian girls are taking their men, and there are fears of imminent xenophobic attacks.

“Three Nigerian girls were killed between November and December 2018,’’ Okah-Donli said.

Ahmed, in her testimony said that the sex trade business has become a source of serious concern to the Nigerian Embassy in Burkina Faso.

She said that the girls were deceived with job opportunities only to arrive and discover that they must go through the horror of sex slaving.

“The spate of human trafficking here in Burkina Faso is a big concern to the embassy because at present, we have nothing less than 10,000 Nigerian girls who have been trafficked into Burkina Faso as commercial sex workers.

“Most of these girls are underage, most left school and are roaming about doing commercial sex work in Burkina Faso.

“This apart from being a dent to our country, it is also a sort of concern as far as their health is concerned.

“For every Nigerian girl that escapes and wants to go back, there are more than 10 in the bush that are willing to carry on,’’ she said.

Ahmed said that the embassy was partnering the International Organisation on Migration (IOM) office in Ouagadougou to assist in the voluntary repatriation of victims of trafficking.

She said that, “200 girls have been repatriated to Nigeria  by the embassy,  this is apart from the ones that ran to the churches , some to other Civil Society Organisations(CSOs) and the International Organisations on Migration (IOM).’’

Beyond repatriation, Ahmed insists that Nigerian parents must play their role by closely monitoring their children, so that they are not swayed into accepting deceitful promises of greener pastures abroad.

“I am pleading with Nigerian parents that they should know what their children are doing, most of the girls said that their parents don’t know what they were doing.

“This is a problem that emanates from the family,” she said.

For the anti-trafficking agency, a multi-stakeholders approach has been adopted with a recent partnership with the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) to establish a taskforce to fight human trafficking.

The partnership according to NAPTIP is to decrease vulnerabilities to trafficking of women, children and the youth.

To check trafficking of girls for sex slavery, Okah-Donli recommended among other things, that Nigeria should sign a Memorandum of Understanding ( MoU) with Mali, Burkina Faso, Benin Republic, Guinea and Senegal.

“All motor parks through which the girls are trafficked should be sanitised and efforts made to stop extortion of Nigerians travelling to or through the aforementioned countries.

“There is need for comprehensive sensitisation of rescued victims before repatriation and a comprehensive blueprint worked out for tracing, empowerment and rehabilitation of victims,” Okah-Donli said.

She said NAPTIP was ready to give technical support to Mali if it sought to establish an anti-human trafficking agency.

The NAPTIP boss also suggested that the ECOWAS Protocol on Free Movement of Persons and Goods should be properly implemented such that other nationals are not harassed in other ECOWAS countries.

All in all, stakeholders suggest that concerted efforts should be made to stop the obnoxious business, as well as address economic situation in the country to make travelling abroad unattractive.