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The Nigerian Kidnappings & the Problem of Global Sex Trafficking


Art Credit: Alex Mazurov

Last month almost three hundred Nigerian girls were kidnapped from school by the extremist Boko Haram group. The Nigerian government has been criticized for not doing enough to find and bring back the girls, despite global uproar.

A man claiming to be Abubakar Shekau, the leader of the Boko Haram, released a video last week threatening to sell the girls “in the market”—the implication being that the group intends to sell them into sexual slavery.

"There is a market for selling humans," Shekau said. And he's right.

Disturbing as this news is, it is not an isolated incident. Though the numbers are extreme in this circumstance, the trafficking of Nigerian women has been a huge problem for years, and young girls in particular, are in high demand. Nigeria is, in fact, a hub for trafficking and thousands of women are trafficked each year from West Africa to Europe. TheNew York Times recently reported that in Africa and the Middle East more than two-thirds of trafficking victims are children.

But trafficking extends far beyond Africa.

To this day, the Japanese government continues to deny its role in forcing thousands of women into "comfort stations" during WWII, despite survivors coming forward with harrowing stories of torture and abuse.

In Canada, First Nations and Inuit girls and women are trafficked between provinces. Indigenous girls and women go missing from their communities and never return.

Human trafficking is a problem worldwide. And it's on the rise.

"The numbers are going up and the ages are coming down," Ruchira Gupta says. Gupta is the founder of Apne Aap Worldwide, an NGO whose work focuses on women's rights and the eradication of sex trafficking. Gloria Steinem recently travelled to India with Gupta, meeting with girls and women in the red light districts who are either literally born into brothels or trafficked from other places. The growing demand for younger girls is happening universally, Gupta says. "In the U.S. it used to be more common to see sixteen- or seventeen-year-old girls, but now we're seeing thirteen-year-olds. In India, we're seeing twelve-year-old girls—the youngest I met was seven."

At the same time the problem is worsening, the issue is becoming more visible. Gupta says there are more NGOs and women's organizations working against trafficking than ever before and more legislation against trafficking than there has been in the past.

What we've learned is that trafficking is far more common than one might think. In her most recent research, Melissa Farley, Ph.D., surveyed eighteen sources across North America and Europe—NGOs, government reports, and original research—and found that 84 percent of women in prostitution are controlled by a third party. That is to say that it isn't a small minority of prostituted women who are being exploited, coerced, or forced into this—it is the majority.

Farley is the founding director of Prostitution Research and Education, a San Francisco nonprofit organization. She has conducted numerous studies on prostitution and trafficking both in the United States and abroad. She says one of the most important things to understand about trafficking is that it is organized crime. "The Hell's Angels, the Bandidos, and Sons of Silence are three motorcycle gangs that function internationally," she says.

Contrary to some modern perceptions, Farley says the places where organized crime is able to operate most safely, easily, and efficiently, in terms of trafficking, are in places where prostitution is legal—Germany and Australia, for example. "According to research, wherever prostitution is legal, trafficking skyrockets," she says. After Australia legalized, there was a 300 percent increase in illegal brothels in Victoria.

Today, we understand trafficking to mean recruitment, transferring, transporting, harboring, or receipt, Gupta says, "but always for the purposes of exploitation." So women and girls are trafficked from third-world countries to the first-world countries, but also within the United States and between provinces or even towns in Canada. Sometimes there is no movement at all. "It could be recruitment in Brooklyn to a gentleman's club in Manhattan or it could be a girl born in a bed in a brothel who is used to replace her mother," Gupta explains.

[For more on the subject of domestic sex trafficking, see “Sex, Money, and Slavery” from Verily’s June/July 2013 issue.]

Coercion doesn't always happen in the most obvious ways. "You don't need to beat up somebody to coerce them into prostitution—coercion can be psychological as well," Farley says. Often women who are trafficked from poor countries leave voluntarily, promised better jobs in richer countries, only to find themselves forced into sexual slavery upon arrival.

No matter where it happens, though, the life of a trafficked women is one of daily abuse and violence. Sometimes psychological trauma can have the worst impact. "Research shows that PTSD is higher among prostituted women than among returning war vets," Gupta says.

She points out that it is not just the physical violence that causes the harm but "the body invasion." The women and girls she has talked to tell her that it is this experience—the "body invasion"—that they must shut out. "Her body and her mind are abused constantly," Gupta says.

It is this aspect that has convinced both Farley and Gupta that there is no possibility for reform within the sex industry. Both argue that it is necessary to address the demand by criminalizing pimps, johns, and traffickers. While some believe that legalizing and regulating the industry is possible, Gupta says it's not possible to legislate away the "working condition" that is "body invasion." In other words, you can't create laws that will erase the trauma of unwanted sex. And the reality is that when women and girls are trafficked, what is happening to them isn't sex, but rape. "Most of the time the customers are not buying sex, they're buying domination," Gupta says.

From the Nigerian schoolgirls to the Chinese "comfort women" of Japan to the Aboriginal girls and women trafficked within Canada, we know two things: 1) Those trafficked are people who are severely marginalized by factors like poverty, racism, and gender inequality, and 2) trafficking and prostitution exist because of demand.

These women and girls deserve better than a life of trauma and suffering. But we can’t help them and it won’t stop until we address these factors head on.

Photo by Alex Mazurov