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‘I was a slave’: Nigerian women escape sexual bondage in Italy

CASERTA, Italy — She is 32 and demure, with a poise that belies the image of a woman who was enslaved for five years in a Nigerian prostitution ring on the outskirts of Naples, the raffish Mediterranean port city 22 miles south of Caserta.

She has been through a living nightmare, like so many of the 120,000 women who now work as prostitutes in Italy.

More than a third of these women come from Nigeria, by far the largest number from any country outside Italy, according to the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime.

A third of them arrived as minors, according a study by the Community of Pope John XXIII, one of several church organizations helping people on the ragged edge of society. With 250 shelters spread across Italy, Catholic nuns are pivotal to the lives of women seeking an escape to stable lives from a sex trade that for many of them is outright slavery.

“My story started in Lagos,” said the 32-year-old woman, who asked to remain anonymous. “We were well-to-do. My father was a crane operator for Nigerian Port Authority. My mother was a teacher, then she got a job in the office where my father worked.”

“The school system was good,” she continued. “I did well as a student. We attended the Catholic church. My mother wanted my older brother to be a priest. He went off to a boys’ seminary in Ibadan. I was 12 when my mom got cancer of the breast. She died when the baby was four months old. That was 1994. … In 2000, my father died of cancer of the brain. I was 17. We had uncles and aunts but none came around. We had to fend for ourselves, and I had no way to further my education. We lived in the family home. I had responsibility for the younger ones.”

Desperation and duplicity

Her brother left seminary, and eventually entered a university. As head of household, she worked as a market vendor with a table, selling fruit, cloth, “anything I could get my hands on” to bring in money.

A lady who visited the market befriended her.

“I had no close adult who could advise me,” she said. “I thought she was a business woman from the nice dresses she wore – it never occurred to me to ask what work she did. She said I could find work in a shop in Naples, and if it did not work out I’d easily find a job as a babysitter.”

After several discussions, she agreed to go. She was 23 then and expected to earn money to send home. The lady covered her plane ticket, she said, and they arrived in Naples on Dec. 15, 2006.

“And then I saw it was all a lie,” she said, her voice dropping. “As soon as I realized I had to go in the street I opposed her and she beat me with her hands. I did not have a choice. I was a slave.”

The woman who duped her was a maman, as Nigerian madams are called. Mamans work through Nigerian pimps or deal directly with Camorra, the regional mafia that exacts turf money for the trade.

The maman held over her a debt for the plane ticket, food costs and rent in her room at a house with four other Nigerian girls forced to bring back swatches of euros from “road work,” selling their bodies in quick encounters through the days and nights.

She lived in Castel Volturno, a town of 25,000 on the shore outside of Naples, where more than a third of the people are Nigerian or Ghanaian, and prostitution is rife.

“I worked seven nights a week and some mornings,” she said. “There was no relief.”

At great cost

In 2008, protests erupted after a Camorra chief led an armed attack that slaughtered six Africans.

The Italian mobsters went to prison for the killings. A government investigation sent 36 Nigerians to long prison terms for drug smuggling, human trafficking and murder, according to press reports of the time.

In that grim environment, she became pregnant in 2008 by a man she thought would rescue her.

“He wasn’t part of the system,” she said in a careful voice. “He recognized the child, but then withdrew.”

She paused. “I think he’s gone back to Nigeria.”

She continued, “I gave birth in the house of that madam. My little boy stayed with me. A woman came as a babysitter. You’re expected to bring in more euros for the extra costs. It was like being in a prison, in a maze — everywhere you go, another barrier. I was full of fear.”

When her son was two-and-a-half she learned of a state shelter, took the boy and fled.

“They accepted my story but said they didn’t have a place,” she said. “They called other places. Sister Rita [Giaretta] said, ‘Bring her over here.’ When I arrived at Casa Ruth, there was another Nigerian girl in the car. I felt protection, some kind of relief. Sister Rita didn’t ask me anything. She said, ‘This is your room. Tomorrow we’ll talk.’”

That was in 2011.

A safety net

Casa Ruth, a home for survivors of prostitution, is run by a small community of Ursuline nuns who moved to Caserta in 1995. The sisters combined three flats in a medium rise building to create a rambling suite of ten bedrooms, kitchen, dining area, living room, parlor, office, chapel and a large veranda.

Every woman who arrives at Casa Ruth is given a copy of the Bible, or the Quran, depending on their beliefs.

She began Italian lessons, with an in-house support system for her son. The nuns helped her in getting residential status from the state. Today, she has her own apartment; her son is in school. She sings in a choir and considers herself a non-denominational Christian.

She gazes out at a listless sky from her seat at a cooperative, New Life, that sells fabrics of tribal design under auspices of the nuns. She works as a seamstress now.

“At night I still think of my parents. If they hadn’t died, I would not be here. But I’ve come to see that in life, things are possible.”

The Nigeria-Naples connection

In 2000, Consolata Missionary Sister Eugenia Bonetti, who had spent many years in Kenya, began organizing an office in Rome for women’s religious orders to counter human trafficking.

“We have saved more than 6,000 women,” estimates the 76-year-old nun. “The majority are still Nigerians. When you think of the weight they have to bear in 4,000 sexual encounters, at 10 or 15 euro each with African men, and 25 to 50 euro with Europeans, the vulnerability of these young women is a great crime.”

In Italian towns and cities where immigrant women work the streets, groups of nuns go out at night, offering the prostitutes tea, handing out leaflets on how to defect to safe houses in convents.

Of the small fraction of women who get to shelters, the sisters organize them to learn Italian and get residential papers, though not all end up staying in Italy. Of the EU countries, Italy has one of the most flexible programs to help migrants.

The second-largest prostitution group is from Romania, an EU country, which means that trafficked women with a passport can stay without a work permit. Many of the Romanians are teenage girls.

“When you rescue them,” said Bonetti, “they’ve lost their adolescence and it’s very difficult to fill that gap with love.”

Criminal networks in Nigeria also use voodoo rituals to ensnare young females before sending them to Europe.

Benin City in Edo State is a hotbed of voodoo, according to the State Department and media reports.

The area was once Dahomey, an 18th-century kingdom that sold huge numbers of African slaves to ships that crossed the Atlantic. Voodoo, a ritual to tribal gods, spread to Caribbean islands like Haiti.

The International Union of Superior Generals, where Bonetti works, assists the Nigerian Conference of Women Religious in providing an 18-bed shelter in Benin City for trafficking survivors deported from Italy.

Benin City is in Edo State, ground zero in Nigeria’s slave export economy.

“The traffickers are cunning,” said Bonetti. “They go into remote villages where there is no work or education, and offer ‘come to Europe, nothing to lose’ – without the girls knowing the risk.”

Sister Rita Giaretta is one of the nuns at Casa Ruth in Caserta, Italy, which helps women who have been victimized by sex trafficking. Photo courtesy of Sister Rita Giaretta

Sister Rita Giaretta is one of the nuns at Casa Ruth in Caserta, Italy, which helps women who have been victimized by sex trafficking. Photo courtesy of Sister Rita Giaretta

In her book “Slaves No More”, Sister Rita Giaretta wrote that traffickers’ voodoo-inspired ceremonies force girls to swallow pieces of “their hair, nails, blood as well as the still-beating heart of a chicken just slaughtered.”

A girl is “possessed by a spirit that may rage within her until provoking her death” — should she betray a maman or pimp.

“The majority of prostitutes come from Edo State,” explained the Rev. Hyginus Obia, a native of Nigeria and the pastor at Naples’ largest immigrant parish, Santa Maria del Monte Veriginella.

“Many of the hotels in Benin City are built by madams. They lure ignorant girls to come to paradise. Girls who go through the voodoo believe that if they run away, the madam will track and kill their parents.”

After seminary in Nigeria, Obia studied in Belgium, and earned a PhD in social sciences at Rome’s Angelicum University. He wrote his dissertation on Christian-Muslim conflict in Nigeria.

Now, in Naples, he deals with the spiritual conflicts of Nigerian women who go to him for counseling, seeking freedom from voodoo rituals that he calls “a corruption of traditional African religion, invoking evil spirits, forces that operate to terrorize people.”

In Naples, two exorcisms have been performed on Nigerian women, according to the Rev. Tonin Palmese, the archdiocese’s vicar for charity.

“The real bond is not the voodoo ritual but the economic system of slavery,” Palmese told GroundTruth.

Many Nigerians in Naples have animist beliefs in ancestral spirits melded with Christianity or Islam, according to Obia.

The priest has on occasion laid out on a table the powders and liquids, used as juju in cult ceremonies and presented to him by distraught people. He prays over the juju to drive out evil spirits and then burns them, as a symbol of catharsis, trying to break the spiritual hold and reconcile the person to Christianity.

In a perverse irony, many of the prostituted women enslaved to madams go with them to Pentecostal churches, which promote prosperity as virtue and have proliferated in the Naples area, according to Obia.

“The mamans bring the girls to Pentecostal churches where they all pay tithes,” he said, referring to the practice of giving a portion of one’s income to church.

“They believe this will help them make more money. I have tried to understand this,” he said with a shrug at the baffling donations which can be taken as a blessing to empower a prostitute or maman to then make more money degrading their bodies.

Gulls crooned in the harbor a few blocks from the balcony of the priest’s rectory.

“Some of the working women come here, and in spite of all their sufferings, they make Italian friends. I know of an Italian man who paid 20,000 euro to get the girl away from the maman — and then the girl became a madam herself.”

Sitting in limbo

Naples is Italy’s third-largest city with 990,000 people, a major Mediterranean port ringed with poverty in dense-packed neighborhoods where laundry hangs from endless balconies as men loiter on rutted streets. Unemployment is 12.6 percent according to state data.

Caritas, the international Catholic relief agency, has a Naples office with programs for economic migrants and another to rescue women from the sex trade, trying to integrate both groups into the larger society.

Forty women are “coming out of trafficking,” according to Palmese, the archdiocesan official who works with nonprofit and government agencies in a network of 14 centers that house women. After a decompression period they begin Italian language lessons as a first step toward gaining political asylum.

“The numbers may seem small,” said Palmese, “but our approach is for social workers to work deeply, one-on-one, with these women in a group environment.”

Week after week, dazed African migrants get off boats in Sicily after the harrowing Mediterranean crossing from Libya to Italy with its weak economy, 14 percent unemployment and millions of young, educated people scrambling for jobs.

Last year 170,000 migrants entered Italy, with an ever-increasing number of people arriving this summer.

“The migrants entering Italy have become a structural reality of changing geopolitics,” said Salvatore Esposito, president of Mediterraneo Sociale, an NGO that works with the church in settling women who escape prostitution.

“As war redraws borders in Africa and the Middle East, people keep leaving,” he said. “Many come here.”

On a sultry June afternoon at a safe house near Naples, a female social worker sat with five young African women who agreed to talk provided their identities and the location were shielded, and that questions not dwell on graphic personal details.

The youngest three were from Nigeria.

“Without [identity] documents we can’t go out much,” said a girl in a T-shirt and shorts, a leg crossed over her knee, sitting placidly in the shade of a tree.

Two other girls from Edo State sat next to her, resistant to questions. They had come from Tripoli on a packed, leaky boat. One of the girls accused a fellow passenger of being a maman. It’s an accusation that an aid group official present for the interview said would be difficult to corroborate.

The two girls were living temporarily in religious housing “for their protection” the official said. They were in legal limbo — and bored stiff.

“I want to talk to my mother,” said the girl in the T-shirt and shorts, sucking a plastic crucifix on a necklace around her neck. “I want to hear from them.”

For security reasons, and concerns over retaliation against family in Nigeria, they had only limited contact with their parents, explained the aid worker.

“I want to go to London,” said the girl. “I’ve seen London on television. It’s a great place!”

This report was first published on The GroundTruth Project website. Valeria Fraschetti assisted with reporting and translation. This story was produced with support from the Henry Luce Foundation, the Mary Catherine Bunting Foundation, and Dan and Sheila Daley. 

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