Exploited and Abused: A Trafficking Victim Recalls Her Nightmare Journey

Published Date: 
Wed, 07/28/2021 - 14:15

 

Young Nigerian woman Blessing* was just 16 and pregnant when her father kicked her out. A few years later, still a teenager and mother of two, she was trafficked and exploited as a sex worker after being lured to Mali by promises of a better job.

The eldest of five children, Blessing was just one of the thousands of young girls who have been enticed by false promises, often dangled by unscrupulous businesswomen. Now 27 and back in Nigeria where she rents a cramped room in Lagos, she details her nightmare hoping others may avoid a life of abuse. “I was a student in Grade 9. I had a boyfriend but my dad didn’t want me to date him. When I got pregnant, dad sent me out of the family home. I lived with my boyfriend for four years but when our second boy was born, he abandoned the children and me,” she says.

To survive, Blessing sold fruit and vegetables at the main market in Lagos. “I didn’t make enough money, but I was able to get enough to feed the children, and even support my mother, my three sisters and my brother,” she says.

“For almost a decade, I had no contact with my father. It was when he became ill and his medical expenses had to be paid that we became closer. I used all my savings for my father’s health care. I even had to go into debt sometimes.”

After her father’s death in 2018, Blessing moved back into the family home with her two children to cut expenses. The income from her fruit and vegetable business could no longer support the family and while checking for other work options she was contacted by a woman who proposed to send her to Mali to work in her hairdressing salon.

“I didn’t want to move and leave my children but the situation was becoming more and more difficult," Blessing says. She agreed to the Mali offer. Blessing left her children under her mother’s care and reached Mali in February 2019 by road. She arrived in Kayes, a city in the west of the country, after a five-day journey. She was sheltered in the backyard of a bar, in a room she shared with other young girls.

“There were 26 Nigerian girls. They welcomed me and were nice to me. They spoke well of the 'Madam' and advised me to obey her in everything she asked me to do," Blessing says. "When I talked about the hairdressing salon, the girls burst out laughing. The 'Madam' came to see me every evening and asked me to rest. I was not allowed to go out and we were watched by a guard.”

Beaten, sold and sexually exploited for more than a year in Mali, Blessing dreamed of returning to her country of origin to be reunited with her two children. Photo: IOM Mali 2020

Eventually the woman explained what was expected. Blessing refused to be a sex worker and was kept under surveillance.

“My boss used to come to see me regularly and insisted that I engaged in sex work for her. I refused and asked her to send me back to Lagos. She told me that I had to pay her back the XOF 1,500,000 (US$3,000) that she had spent to bring me here.”

Blessing did not change her mind, despite being deprived of food for a day, then two days. The woman ordered the other girls to convince Blessing and toughened the punishments.

“I got slapped by the girls every night. I was locked in a room when the girls went out for sex work. One of the girls I befriended explained to me that she, too, had been trapped in the same way and had ended up agreeing to be a sex worker. However, she planned to escape at the first available opportunity.”

After a fortnight she and her friend escaped while a guard was absent. They were hosted by another Nigerian woman who advised them not to go to the gendarmerie. This woman also ran a bar.

“The lady told me that there is no job there; we could only work as cleaning ladies for XOF 10,000 a month. But with such an amount, we would barely be able to find a place to live. She offered us to work on our own. She promised to keep our money so that we would not be robbed of it. We got stuck. My friend asked me to accept. So, I started work.”

Then, Blessing agreed to be a sex worker for XOF 2,000 a client. She later learned that she had been sold by the woman who brought her from Nigeria for XOF 500,000 to the woman she thought was her benefactor.

“On Fridays and Saturdays, we had a lot of customers, between 10 and 15. Some customers were nice and sometimes gave me XOF 5,000 or XOF 10,000. But on nights when there were not many customers, the Madam would ask me to accept to do it even at XOF 1,000,” she says.

Beaten, sold and sexually exploited for more than a year in Mali, Blessing dreamed of returning to her country of origin to be reunited with her two children. Photo: IOM Mali 2020

After a month, she asked the woman to give her what she had saved but discovered she had been sold and had to work to pay back the money before she could consider getting the XOF 150,000 needed to return home. Trapped, she worked as a sex worker for her new boss.

“Every day, after work, we were searched. They took everything we had. We were forced to ask for everything we needed. Items were provided to us and the amount was accordingly deducted from our money. We were charged XOF 4,000 (US$8) a day for rent and food. We had no money and our boss had no intention of paying us.”

After six months, the two friends decided to flee to the capital Bamako, 500 kilometres south, and with help from her friend’s boyfriend, Blessing made it to the Nigerian Embassy there where she was referred to the International Organization for Migration (IOM). Blessing later learned that her mother had died in March 2019, a month after she had left Nigeria. Her boss had kept Blessing in the dark to prevent her from rushing home.

“I wanted to go home to see my children and visit my mum’s grave. I was so sad that I couldn’t think of anything else but to go home. I was the only person to support my children,” she says with tears in her eyes.

After being referred to IOM by the Nigerian Embassy in Mali, Blessing was received by the Protection team to assess her vulnerability and eligibility for one of IOM’s projects for migrants in distress.

IOM runs several projects that aim to provide, inter alia, assistance to migrants in distress, victims of trafficking in persons, unaccompanied minor migrants, voluntary return and reintegration candidates.

Blessing was referred to the centre for victims of trafficking which provides accommodation, food, non-food item (NFI) kits and medical or psychosocial support as needed.

“I was happy to be in this centre, even though I couldn’t wait to go home. The girls were always chatting. Some of them talked about what happened to them, but others refused to talk about it. There were sad stories. Many girls had died in terrible conditions. I was lucky to be alive and safe there.”

The centre arranged travel documents and IOM's country office took over to support Blessing's reintegration process, which will begin soon after she returned to Nigeria recently.

Since 2017, IOM Mali, with its partners, have identified and assisted over 757 victims of trafficking in persons, the vast majority of whom are women (96.3per cent). However, the number of victims of trafficking in Mali is estimated to be in the hundreds of thousands, according to a survey on trafficking in persons in Mali, published in May 2021 by IOM.

* Names, places and dates were changed or omitted to protect the victim’s identity. This story was written by Moussa Tall at IOM Mali, Tel: + 223 20 22 76 97, Email: motall@iom.int