Authorities in Côte d'Ivoire and Nigeria should investigate and close down networks that traffic Nigerian women and girls to Côte d'Ivoire for forced prostitution, Human Rights Watch said today.
Human Rights Watch also called for collaboration among regional neighbors to improve border efforts to combat trafficking.
In July 2010, Human Rights Watch traveled to three Ivorian towns and met with groups totaling around 30 Nigerian women believed to have been trafficked for prostitution. Eight victims were interviewed individually. Scores of similar cases involving Nigerian women and girls were documented by interviews with Ivorian officials, United Nations personnel, and Nigerian embassy staff. Many victims were either between the ages of 15 and 17 or had been minors when brought to Côte d'Ivoire.
"These women and girls were sold dreams of migrating to better their lives, but then found themselves in a personal hell," said Corinne Dufka, senior West Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. "The Ivorian and Nigerian authorities need to find and prosecute the perpetrators, work with regional neighbors to shut down their operations, and do more to protect the victims."
In two small towns in central Côte d'Ivoire, with populations of about 40,000 and 50,000, respectively, Human Rights Watch documented the presence of five separate brothels of Nigerian women and girls. A gendarme in one of the towns estimated that at least 100 Nigerian women were working there as prostitutes. Human Rights Watch investigations indicated that the majority of them were likely to have been trafficked.
Deceived into Prostitution
All of the women and girls interviewed by Human Rights Watch described being deceived into migrating with promises of work as apprentice hairdressers or tailors, or to work in other businesses elsewhere in West Africa or in Europe. They said that Nigerian women recruited and transported them overland through Benin, Togo, Ghana, and Burkina Faso. The majority of victims told both Human Rights Watch and the Nigerian embassy that they came from Delta and Edo States in southern Nigeria.
Nigerian embassy staff in Abidjan told Human Rights Watch that they have repatriated scores of women trafficked for prostitution, including dozens this year alone, and noted that the problem is on the rise.
Ruth (not her real name), a 27-year-old Nigerian woman trafficked for prostitution in central Côte d'Ivoire, said:
"I came here six years ago with five other girls from Delta State. The woman who brought us told me that she sold wrappers [fabric used as a skirt] in Côte d'Ivoire. I thought it was a good opportunity for me to learn a business, so I left Nigeria and went with her. The second day after we arrived, she handed us each a condom and I thought, What is this? She said, 'This is what you are going to do.' What could I do? I had nobody backing me ... so I did it."
An 18-year-old Nigerian woman told Human Rights Watch that the woman who trafficked her two years ago enticed her to leave Nigeria with promises to learn to be a hairdresser. Another young woman, from Edo State, described her own experience:
"She said I was going to sell clothes in a boutique in Liberia, but took me [to Côte d'Ivoire] and every night I have to do this.... Just a thousand [CFA francs] each man. I have been here for two years. I don't like it. I want to leave."
Within days of arrival in Côte d'Ivoire, the traffickers demanded that the women and girls engage in prostitution to pay off an exorbitant "debt" of generally 1.5 to 2 million CFA francs (US$3,000 to $4,000), though the cost of overland transportation to Côte d'Ivoire is only roughly 100,000 CFA ($200). This amounts to debt bondage, a practice similar to slavery under the 1956 United Nations Supplementary Convention on the Abolition of Slavery.
Several victims said they had not yet been able to pay off their "debt" despite engaging in sex work in Côte d'Ivoire for between two and six years, and despite having sex with up to 30 men a night. Nigerian women and girls in central Côte d'Ivoire said that they receive 1,000 CFA francs ($2) per act, or 5,000 CFA francs ($10) for the night.
"You have to work so hard," Ruth said. "In one night, you have to have sex with 15, 20, even 30 men. You work until the sun comes up and you cannot even open your eyes. Some of the girls are small, less than 18 years old. They think they are coming for something else. They were not doing this kind of work [prostitution] in Nigeria. One girl, she is so small, she is only 16. This is not the work for a small girl."
Ivorian, UN, and Nigerian officials described to Human Rights Watch an incident in July 2010 in which three 17-year-old Nigerians who refused to engage in sex work after being trafficked were locked in a room and denied food for three days. They finally escaped, went to the local police, and were repatriated by the Nigerian embassy.
All the victims Human Rights Watch interviewed said they wanted to leave Côte d'Ivoire and the sex trade, but felt they had no escape because of the perceived consequences of failing to pay the debt.
"We can't leave," said Faith (not her real name), an 18-year-old Nigerian woman trafficked for prostitution in Central Côte d'Ivoire. "The girls are scared."
The women said repeatedly that "bad things" would happen to them or their families if they escaped, but were too afraid to provide further details regarding the precise threats or the person who would hurt them. Further investigation needs to be undertaken by Ivorian and Nigerian authorities to determine the extent of the trafficking operation, the threats being made, and ways to protect the victims, Human Rights Watch said.
Failure to Investigate, Prosecute Traffickers
Diplomats and international aid agency officials told Human Rights Watch that Ivorian authorities have rarely conducted in-depth investigations into trafficking for prostitution or successfully prosecuted traffickers. The United States State Department's 2009 Trafficking in Persons Report identified a single such prosecution that year.
The central impediments to investigation and prosecution appear to be an ineffective legal framework and a lack of will, or interest in the cases, on the part of Ivorian authorities, Human Rights Watch said. Côte d'Ivoire has not signed the UN Trafficking Protocol and also lacks domestic legislation that specifically criminalizes trafficking. Human Rights Watch called on the Ivorian government to sign and ratify the UN Trafficking Protocol without delay and pass a draft domestic anti-trafficking law, currently under consideration, that is in harmony with international standards.
Ivorian authorities interviewed by Human Rights Watch were aware of the presence of Nigerian prostitutes and the possibility that they had been trafficked, but seemed to have done little to determine how the young women had ended up in urban brothels or to question those appearing to be running them.
The Nigerian government has passed anti-trafficking legislation in accordance with international law and has provided significant funding to domestic law enforcement and anti-trafficking bodies to implement these efforts. However, Côte d'Ivoire is not a central focus of Nigerian anti-trafficking efforts, which concentrate more on trafficking to other West African countries or to Europe or the United States.
"Nigerian and Ivorian authorities must more proactively combat those who prey on vulnerable girls and women," Dufka said. "Many more will be trafficked for prostitution if governments fail to take robust action."
To Ivorian authorities:
Ensure that the current draft anti-trafficking law provides a framework for combating trafficking, including trafficking for the purpose of prostitution, in accordance with international standards, and then pass the law without delay.
Sign and ratify the UN Trafficking Protocol.
Conduct a thorough and comprehensive national investigation into the trafficking of Nigerian women and girls for the purposes of prostitution.
In collaboration with the United Nations Operation in Côte d'Ivoire (UNOCI), where necessary, arrest and prosecute those engaged in recruiting children for prostitution and those who force women and girls into prostitution.
Discipline police officers or gendarmes who extort and demand bribes from sex workers to release them from detention.
Improve outreach and services to trafficking victims by, for example:
asking radio stations to disseminate information about where victims can reach help;
establishing telephone hotlines for victims; and
providing victims with needed psychological and physical health assistance, as well as other social services needed for recovery.
To Nigerian authorities:
Conduct an in-depth investigation into who is operating the trafficking networks into Côte d'Ivoire, and prosecute those responsible in accordance with international fair trial standards.
Protect women and girls repatriated to Nigeria after escaping from traffickers by closely following their cases and ensuring that they are not victims of reprisals for failing to repay their "debts." Ensure that the repatriated victims benefit from National Agency for Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons (NAPTIP) programs for physical and psychosocial recovery, as well as skills training.
To the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS):
Engage with member states to develop multi-country strategies to protect women and girls from trafficking and identify and arrest organizers of trafficking networks operating throughout West Africa.