Family Violence is Fueling the Trafficking of Yorùbá Girls in Nigeria

We often think poverty is what makes girls vulnerable to sex trafficking, but new research suggests another set of related factors may play a significant role: family dysfunction, domestic violence and abuse.

In interviews with a small group of adult Nigerian Yorùbá women survivors of child sex trafficking, we discovered, much to our surprise, that most of them came from middle class families. They became vulnerable to trafficking when the family encountered dysfunction, domestic violence, abuse and divorce. The one participant who did grow up poor even noted that it was family violence, not poverty in and of itself, that put her at risk for trafficking.

In 2012, activists climbed to the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro as part of the Africa UNiTE campaign’s “Climb Up Speak Out” initiative—taking the awareness of gender-based violence to new heights. (UN Women)

Nigeria is a source, transit and destination country for trafficking. Each year thousands of girls are trafficked within and outside Nigeria, making trafficking the third most common crime in Nigeria. Folah Oludayo, the primary author of this piece, is herself Nigerian and Yorùbá, and worked as a counselor with trafficking survivors before coming to the U.S. to complete an MA in Women, Gender & Sexuality Studies at Oregon State University.

In the fall of 2017, the bodies of 26 Nigerian girls between the ages of 14-18 were pulled from the Mediterranean Sea. They had been in dinghies that left from Libya for Italy and capsized because of bad weather. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees in Italy noted that girls and young women making this journey without family members are likely trafficking victims.

Prior to colonization, Yorùbá women played significant roles within their families and communities and occupied a crucial position in the local, state and federal economy. They organized household, industries, operated the local market system and established long-distance trade networks and had important legal rights in their natal homes—including access to land, the use of their fathers’ houses, shares in the profits from their fathers’ farms and participation in the ancestral and Orisa cults of their paternal lineage.

Women thusly possessed independent sources of ritual, economic and political influence—until British rule contributed to the deterioration of Yorùbá women’s status in ways that persist in contemporary misogynistic practices in Nigerian culture. Much of the basis of women’s former power collapsed under the indifference of colonial administrators, who failed even to notice its presence. This collapse negatively influenced the Yorùbá community and created inequality among genders in every sphere of life. British patriarchal values aligned with Yorùbá patriarchal values, creating poverty, dependence and vulnerability among women.  

In modern-day Nigeria, a complex set of “push and pull” factors in the countries of origin and in the countries of destination make young women and girls particularly vulnerable to trafficking. Globalization, economic crises, political instability, conflicts, civil wars, ethnic cleansing, social inequality, the development of market economy and gender discrimination exert pressures on victims that “push” them into being trafficked, and into the control of traffickers. Demand for prostitution, significantly higher wages and a demand for migrant workers to perform low-wage work tend to “pull” potential victims and trap them for trafficking.

In Nigeria, recruiters often go to villages to traffic young girls through deceiving their parents. The recruiters give the impression to parents that they are assisting their daughters with better education and employment. Sometimes, they are even close family friends or relatives. They use both deception and force to obtain their victims, who they then transport to the destinations where they are sold for services. 

The Mama Ke is often the sponsor, facilitator, boss or collaborator in the trafficking syndicate—and a rich and influential madam. They pretend to show love, care and affection to naïve and unsuspecting girls and their parents in order to earn their trust with expensive gifts, promises of education and greener pastures, but the Mama Ke is actively involved from recruitment to exploitation. In the destination country, she is responsible for the victims after their arrival, and victims usually live and work under her control.

“I met some friends who introduced me to this aunty in my neighborhood who was very nice to us,” one victim recalled. “We would run errands for her—and in return, she would take us out shopping. In no time, I was very close to her, and I told her my story and my goals. Aunty Ammy promised to help me and another friend—which she did help me and my friend secure a job and get our traveling documents to Europe.”

But the story, of course, doesn’t end there. “I finally arrived at Florence, Italy, in Europe, in the winter,” she said. “I was welcomed to a party the first night, went sightseeing and shopping for new clothes. But things changed after two weeks when I began to ask questions about the promised job by aunty Ammy. I was beaten and tied to the bed, once a day meal, drugged and raped several times by different men of various ethnicities when I didn’t comply. I forcefully had to subject myself to prostitution for me to survive.”

Well-meaning family members often believe they are sending girls off for a better life—only to hand them over to traffickers.

“My brother was passionate about breaking the gender norm against women that he had seen affecting me,” one survivor told us. “I think that was what encouraged him to secure a foreign admission for me, and he also wanted me to leave the environment where I’m being abused physically by my aunt, who thinks I’m not a priority as a girl. I remember her always saying: ‘There is no point wasting resources on you, because you’ll end up in a man’s house as a property.’ My family bought into that lie, and my brother made payment for my school fees, accommodation and stipends, which he gave to uncle Kunle.”

Often, recruiters approach family members with promise of a European education, better living conditions and lucrative jobs. “I was excited and traveled in the company of another lady who was in her twenties,” the same survivor recalled. “We got to Italy safely with no interrogation. I was excited to start school and earn a foreign certificate. When I arrived in Italy, I was bitter, heartbroken, confused about what to tell my brother or do when I learned that it was prostitution and nothing close to admission.”

Various studies suggest that nearly 60 to 70 percent of women in Nigeria have experienced abuse within the family. Research also suggests a number of factors that contribute to the trafficking of Yorùbá girls: globalization, restrictive immigration policies, widespread poverty, lack of information, gender inequality, and weak legal systems and corruption.

Our interviews with survivors and service providers bridge these numbers. Our findings show that a constellation of related factors—including family dysfunction, sexual abuse and domestic violence—contribute significantly to vulnerability.

When women are abused, they may experience depression or PTSD and begin to neglect their children. They may internalize their own oppression and transfer their aggression to their children. They may divorce or leave without a trace, abandoning their children. They may be killed or permanently injured by their husbands. Men in the family may abuse girls. Divorce or abandonment may lead to a significant change in socio-economic status. All of these experiences can act as trigger points to increase girls’ vulnerability to trafficking as they seek affection, acceptance and refuge.

One service provider told us about Dupe, who had dreamed of becoming a doctor. Her father was an alcoholic who beat her mother. One day, her mother simply left the house and never returned.

“Eight out of 12 survivors I have counseled had background history of family violence,” another explained. “I remember the story of Shola, one of the deported trafficked victims in 2011. She described how her step father was sexually abusing her without her mother’s knowledge, and this has been happening since she was 11 years till she was 14 years, and when she told her mother, her mother did not believe her. Rather, she sent her to her grandmother—saying that she doesn’t want Shola to cause division between her and her spouse.”

One survivor told us that her mother got pregnant out of wedlock. The man’s father sent him to England, and her mother was sent to live with her maternal grandmother in a village. Her mother married a local farmer who started raping her when she was only eight years old. When she was 14, she fled, and was subsequently ensnared by traffickers.

“I was older than 14 years at the time—I might not be precise and remember the time, or the day,” another survivor explained. “After several years from now, I do, however, know the precise season, what the weather was that day, where we were, what I was wearing, what he was wearing and what was happening one second before. I remembered it all and always till this moment. I was blind, deaf and dumb at that moment and was dead at the actual time I realized that my stepfather raped me. I never told anyone because there was nothing to tell, since I played dead to all that he did to me for five years before I ran away from home. I repressed the rape experience and the feelings way down inside of me. I can still remember the deceitful and non-remorseful look on his face. For several years, his words echoed in my head. He said: ‘This is our secret and you must never tell anyone.’ The experience and the trauma were what influenced the rest of my life.”

When asked what might have made a difference for them, survivors pointed to family support. “If my mum had stayed or taken me with her,” one said. “I lacked a mother care.” Another simply wanted someone to notice her struggles. “I felt unwanted and irritated at everyone around me not noticing that something wasn’t right about me, my weird behavior around my stepfather,” she explained. “I wanted to run away from away from my stepdad.”

Others noted mistreatment by the people tasked with caring for them after they were separated from their mothers. “If my parent had not died,” one suggested, “and my aunt had never treated me any different from the male children, and she never was abusive to me,” it would have made a difference. “I was just tired of my stepmother taking her anger on me and maltreating me,” another explained. “I wanted to leave the environment where I’m being abused sexually by my father’s apprentice and physically by my stepmother.”

While the survivors interviewed for this study have escaped trafficking and established better lives for themselves, not all victims survive or thrive. Most survivors experience sexually transmitted infections, struggle with depression and experience emotional disorders. They also face stigma within the Yorùbá community.

“I had to relocate to another continent to marry as I was alienated when I returned to Nigeria among my people,” one survivor explained. “This condition gives a condemned feeling to one’s conscience and renders me hopeless. I was depressed because my relationships did not work out after I told them my past.”

Despite setbacks and struggles, however, all of these survivors now work in one way or another to end trafficking and support other survivors.

Both survivors and service providers agreed that the Nigerian government is not doing enough to prevent trafficking or provide services for survivors and, in fact, is complicit with traffickers. Social institutions within Nigeria, including the governments, schools, media, and religion, should coordinate to address issues of girl vulnerability, especially the problems of family dysfunction, abuse, and violence.

When girls are neglected, abandoned and abused, they become easier targets for traffickers. While poverty certainly plays a role in vulnerability, governments and service providers should not overlook the impact of violence within middle class families on girls’ vulnerability. Programs to combat trafficking among the Yorùbá should be aware of this role of family dysfunction and violence in creating vulnerabilities for girls.

About and

Folah Oludayo is a Yorùbá woman from Nigeria who recently completed her MA in Women, Gender & Sexuality Studies at Oregon State University. Before coming to the U.S., she worked as a counsellor with survivors of trafficking.
Susan M. Shaw, Ph.D., is a professor of women, gender and sexuality studies at Oregon State University.