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From the Chains of Trafficking to the Ties of Christian Community

In March 2018 a bold decree was made by Oba Ewuare II, the traditional ruler of the kingdom of Benin (located in southern Nigeria). Oba Ewuare II was upset that his beloved kingdom had received negative international press regarding the high numbers of women and girls who are coerced into trafficking and sexual exploitation and “bound” to their traffickers through voodoo juju rituals, so he decreed that all victims of these rituals are free. He then added a second part to the decree, turning the tables and cursing both voodoo priests and traffickers for their involvement in this exploitation.

Why would a decree by a traditional ruler in southern Nigeria matter to people in North America?

Did you hear about this decree? I would not be surprised if you didn’t. After all, why would a decree by a traditional ruler in southern Nigeria matter to people in North America?

We share our mutual woes,

Our mutual burdens bear,

And often for each other flows

The sympathizing tear.

As a missionary for the Reformed Church in America, I work with Nigerian women in Italy who are victims and ex-victims of trafficking and sexual exploitation, and I am not ashamed to say I have shed tears on numerous occasions because of this work. I have listened to many firsthand accounts from women who were either forced to leave their homes in Nigeria by family or friends who sold them to traffickers, or who were lured away from home with false promises of education and work in Europe (usually as babysitters or hair stylists).

The intense fear of the juju ritual is one of the many things that bind these women.

Many of these women have shared stories of being forced to engage in a juju ritual before beginning their journey to Europe, to seal the contract between the woman and the person or persons exploiting her. For these women, the penalties for breaking their contract (as explained by the voodoo priest/native doctor) are severe: the juju has the power to cause insanity or even death, either to the woman or to her family. The intense fear of the juju ritual is one of the many things that bind these women to sexual exploitation. In this respect, I am grateful that Oba Ewuare II made the decree; it is a decree that may release some women from the ties that bind them to sexual slavery. However, it is not the only thing binding them.

From sorrow, toil, and pain,

and sin, we shall be free;

and perfect love and friendship reign

Through all eternity.

The exploitation of Nigerian women for trafficking and sexual exploitation in Europe is big business. From 2013 to 2016 we saw a 600% increase in the number of Nigerian women (and girls) who arrived in Italy. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) reports that approximately 80% of those women and girls are potential victims of exploitation. In the past four years alone over 23,500 Nigerian women have arrived in Italy.

The exploitation of Nigerian women in Europe is big business.

Those who are profiting from the suffering of victims of trafficking will not allow this decree to cut into their business. If juju threats are no longer effective, the exploiters will threaten and use physical violence against the women themselves (and sometimes their families back home in Nigeria as well).

By the time women come to us asking for help to free themselves from exploitation, they have many, many scars, but none run as deeply as the spiritual scars that remain. Often, their belief in juju is mixed with Christianity, and I have heard these women express their belief that they were sold into sexual exploitation because God willed it. Some women report that they were lured into trafficking by trusted members or pastors of their local Christian churches, who brought them to the voodoo priest for the juju ritual. To experience such betrayal from inside your church, by someone who you trusted as a spiritual leader, is a hefty burden to bear. To believe that God would not only allow this to happen, but willed it, is crushing.

I have heard these women express that they were sold into sexual exploitation because God willed it.

It is an honor to work with those who are in need of freedom from the physical ties to trafficking and sexual exploitation. It is a privilege to help them find freedom from their spiritual shackles too. Looking into the eyes of these women and telling them that they are beloved children of God is powerful. Welcoming them to worship on Sunday mornings with arms wide open is transformational. Telling them that I was sent here to Italy to work with them because Christians in North America care about them and want them to be free…this is a blessed tie, a tie that liberates rather than enslaves. And it makes a difference.

Before our Father’s throne

We pour our ardent prayers;

Our fears, our hopes, our aims are one,

Our comforts and our cares.

Therefore, I ask you to join me in prayer for these beloved women and children of God, that they may find the freedom in Christ for which they yearn. Join me in lamenting a world in which such atrocities occur, and in hoping for a world to come where trafficking and sexual exploitation are no more. Join me in embracing victims of exploitation, comforting them, and supporting them on their journey towards freedom.

I ask you to join me in prayer for these beloved women and children of God.

And if you are not compelled to shed a sympathizing tear for our sisters from Nigeria, I encourage you to look in your own communities. There are certainly victims of trafficking and sexual exploitation there as well.

Blest be the tie that binds

Our hearts in Christian love;

The fellowship of kindred minds

Is like to that above.

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