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In Nigeria, women religious are rescuing, rehabilitating victims of human trafficking

Sister Gertrude Elelegu, pictured April 2, 2024, is project manager for the human trafficking initiative run by Catholic Sisters of St Louis at Bakhita Villa in Nigeria's commercial capital, Lagos. (OSV News photo/Valentine Benjamin)

By Valentine Benjamin

LAGOS, Nigeria (OSV News) — For decades, Nigeria has remained a source, transit and destination country for human trafficking in sub-Saharan Africa, with her citizens making up 6% of immigrants in Libya, where they are commonly traded in open markets, according to a 2021 report from the International Organization for Migration.

But a network of Catholic Sisters of St. Louis at the Bakhita Empowerment center, a safehouse in Lagos, Nigeria’s commercial capital, is determined to change this by providing shelter to survivors and conducting education campaigns to prevent others from being victimized.

At the transit shelter, women and girls receive rehabilitation and counseling to restart their lives. The shelter is named after St. Josephine Bakhita, the patron saint of human trafficking survivors. Kidnapped at age 7 in Sudan and sold into slavery, Josephine was taken to Italy in 1885 by her last owner. Two years later a judge ruled that because slavery was illegal in Italy, she actually had been free since 1885. She entered religious life, joining the Canossian Sisters, who intervened in court on her behalf.

The Catholic Sisters of St. Louis offer assistance, counseling and vocational training at the shelter to help trafficking survivors reintegrate into society. They also do prevention and sensitization campaigns, to raise awareness on the causes of human traffickers. The shelter accommodates about 30 survivors whom Sister Patricia Ebegbulem, project coordinator of the safehouse calls “treasures.”

She is working with three other women religious who are assisting not only with project management, but also supervision, counseling, spiritual well-being and medical intervention for survivors.

Sister Gertrude Elelegu told OSV News the victims undergo counseling depending on the level of trauma they exhibit. “Some undergo special therapies outside the shelter where they routinely meet with a therapist, especially when it has to do with psychosis.”

“We also engage them in occupational therapy to help them regain independence in all areas of their lives, especially with barriers that affect their emotional, social, and physical needs. They undergo training in shoes, bags and bead making … depending on what we have at that moment for them to learn,” Sister Gertrude said.

Following their rehabilitation and counseling program, the sisters place them under observation to examine their recovery. They offer some more counseling upon reuniting survivors with their families.

For those who would like to go back to school, the sisters work with their families to ensure that they are properly enrolled in a school where they can get the kind of education they deserve.

“Some of them will say that they’d like to learn some skills … tailoring, hairdressing, basic computer, catering and makeup. These are skills they can acquire within three months, or six months to one year, depending on their ability to learn fast,” Sister Gertrude told OSV News.

“To achieve this, we collaborate with artisans where they are enrolled in the apprenticeship system and schools where they acquire formal education,” Sister Gertrude added.

Joy Eze, whose name was changed for her security, is one of the survivors living in the shelter.

Now 18, she was trafficked to Ghana by her mother’s friend with a vague promise of a better life in 2019 and was forced into prostitution in Accra, Ghana’s capital.

“Two other girls and I were crammed into a bus. … I was separated from the girls two days after we arrived and was compelled to either sleep with men for money in return or go out there and fend for myself,” she said.

Eze pleaded for the “madam,” her trafficker, not to coerce her into the commercial sex ring. But two months after living in deplorable conditions, she yielded to the pressure.

In 2023, a Nigerian woman was accused of trafficking five girls from Nigeria to Ghana to engage in prostitution and was charged by Accra’s court. She pleaded not guilty and was released on bail.

In 2022, Eze was enrolled in a private high school through a scholarship from an individual donor. But she could not cope due to the trauma of rejection and persecution she was suffering from her family members who have refused to accept her.

Sister Gertrude explained that she’s still traumatized “because her family members, including the traditional chief of her local community … rejected her despite our efforts to reintegrate her. So, we decided to adopt her and also care for her baby.”

Human trafficking is a global plague that generates billions of dollars in profits, with over 40 million people being exploited and trafficked each year.

Sister Patricia, project manager of Bakhita Empowerment told OSV News migration is everybody’s right “but it becomes a problem when it’s not done properly and under the laws of the departure country.”

She and other sisters not only assist and pray for the victims, but also organize awareness and prevention campaigns in schools, churches and marketplaces.

Their efforts are being supported by many groups, including an Italian organization called Slaves No More, the Sovereign Order of Malta, the Conrad Hilton Foundation, the Arise Foundation and the International Organization for Migration, as well as individual donors.

Their work has gained international recognition. Sister Patricia was honored with the Human Dignity Award for lifetime achievement in addressing exploitation at the inaugural Sisters Anti-Trafficking Awards, or SATAs, held in October 2023 in London.

“Stopping trafficking is an uphill task, but I will not say it is impossible,” Sister Patricia said in a video produced by Arise. “Because with God, nothing is impossible.”

The shelter has handled about 150 cases since Bakhita Empowerment was opened in 2019, and their work is sometimes frustrated by funding challenges. But Sister Patricia says it’s a ministry in which she and the sisters working on her team are committed to helping girls drifting away from Christ reestablish their footing with opportunities to thrive in society.

Valentine Benjamin writes for OSV News from Lagos, Nigeria.

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