SOMINI SENGUPTA, noted journalist and writer for the New York Times, talks about the sex trade in Nigeria
BENIN CITY, Nigeria - For Becky, the issue was not so much what she did all those years working abroad as it was that she came home empty-handed.
Part of a stream of young women here with pretty faces and bleak futures, Becky stowed away to Italy a decade ago, at age 24, to work as a prostitute. Like many of them, she returned a pauper, deported for a second time by Italian authorities and clipped of all courage to try again.
As far as her friends and neighbors were concerned, there was no shame in the work; the shame was in coming back without a nest egg. "Some people laugh," Becky said. " 'See, she went to Italy and her family chopped the money.' "
Would it have been different if she had come back loaded? Becky looked bewildered at the question. "Everybody would come and meet me and bow down," she said.
The story of women like Becky, who wanted her last name withheld to spare herself further humiliation, complicates the conventional wisdom on the global prostitution business. These are not necessarily young uneducated women who are unwittingly sold into prostitution abroad.
Many are indeed young and mostly uneducated. Becky, for example, now 34, has never learned to read. But these days, many of the young women are going abroad with eyes wide
open, and they are going by the scores, taking enormous risks, and taking on debts of up to $45,000, all because of the reputed success of those who have gone before them.
For nearly 20 years, the women of Benin City, an ancient walled town in southern Nigeria, have been going to Italy to work in the sex trade, and every year, the successful ones have been recruiting younger women to follow them.
The tales of their triumphs roll off people's lips. The Italos, as these women are called here, returned home and built proper houses. They sank private boreholes to supply running water day and night. They introduced shiny new four-wheel drives to the unpaved roads of Benin City.
Some years ago, a popular singer named Ohenhen wrote a hit song celebrating the enormous wealth of a prominent Italo named Dupay and praising her generosity in "sponsoring"
younger women to do the same. Like Dupay, the biggest stars of the Italian sex trade don't live here any more.
The extent of their real success seems hardly to matter. What matters much more is the myth of their success and, even more important, that their success can be emulated. Never mind the Beckys who come home with nothing, or, worse still, those who end up beaten or diseased or dead. For many girls in Benin City, the seat of one of West Africa's great old kingdoms, prostitution in Italy has become an entirely acceptable trade.
The legend of their success makes the fight against sex traffickers all the more difficult.
"They're selling a product for which there's a market," said Grace Osakue, director of Girls Power Initiative, a nonprofit group. "It's not a stigma any more, as long as money comes with it. If they come back with money, they are respected. If they come back poor, they are sex workers,
they are failures."
Community workers here recall the stories of women who traveled with the consent of their families: a married woman whose father nudged her to go to Italy, another who went with her husband's encouragement. They recall girls coming home or being deported home to disappointed, or downright angry families.
Maureen Ororho, the Benin City representative of the International Organization for Migration, once gently suggested to a mother that perhaps her daughter, who was about to be deported back home, had been unaware that she would be pressed into prostitution when she first agreed to go to Italy.
The mother, Ms. Ororho recalled, snapped back, "What else do they go there to do?" She was not at all happy about having her daughter back home.
A. O. Abiodun was a banker here in the late 1980's when the first Italos came to deposit unprecedented piles of cash. Over the years, the Italian exodus became entrenched.
Propositions could be heard at wedding receptions, on street corners, inside shops. Even here, she said, looking around the dining room at Mr. Bigg's fast-food place where she sat sipping a Coke, someone's cousin, someone's aunt, could be sipping a Coke, too, drawing up a deal for a young woman to "travel." The deal would likely be sealed with a juju ceremony guaranteed to preserve the secrecy of the transaction and make it that much harder for Mrs. Abiodun
to exact testimonies in court.
"In this state, this thing is deep in the society," said Mrs. Abiodun, who now heads the regional office of the new National Agency for the Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons. "It's a way of poverty alleviation."
The woman who took on the working name Princess was working as a secretary in the nearby oil town of Warri, she said, when she got an offer to travel to Italy. "I thought if I traveled, I would make it," she said.
She did make it through her period of servitude, working six months in Livorno and paying off a debt of roughly $29,000 to her sponsor, also a woman from here. Soon after
that, however, before she could start to pocket her own
earnings, she was picked up Italian police and shipped home
along with a half-dozen girls like her.
"No good things to come back home," is how she remembers feeling on the long plane ride from Milan to Lagos. "I don't have money, I don't have property - all the things I
went to Italy for."
She could think of only one option. For a second time, she sought out the agent who arranged for her passage the first time around. "I went to her begging to carry me back," she
The agent turned her down. Too much trouble with the police these days, Princess was told.
Princess now cares for her five younger siblings in a one-room shack plastered with Jesus posters. She says she no longer wants to go to Italy with a Nigerian sponsor.
But she says she hasn't given up looking for a rescuer, a foreigner preferably, who could lift her away to a better life, perhaps the pair of journalists who had come to
document her story. She refused to disclose her real name.
She refused to have her face displayed in a photograph. If
she were paid, she would reconsider.
Turning around girls like her is the challenge facing Sister Florence Nwaonuma, a Roman Catholic nun who heads the Committee for the Support of Dignity of Women.
"There are success stories," Sister Florence said. "There are those who succeeded who buy other girls. But I want to say, the rate of failure far outweighs the rate of
Families are sometimes reluctant to take in another mouth to feed. The women themselves are reluctant to return to a life of pittances. Failure hangs like a heavy burden.
The first time Becky came home, after a few months on the streets of Livorno, she said her mother greeted her at the airport in Lagos with dismay on her face. "Now we have to
continue where we started off," Becky recalled her mother saying.
Becky went back the following year, this time making a perilous journey across the Sahara and then the Strait of Gibraltar to Spain. Of the 18 Nigerian women who crossed
the water with her, 11 survived. Becky took the first train
to Italy, this time to ply the streets of Verona.
Her luck lasted long enough this time around to start sending money home. Then, once more, earlier this year, another police sweep, another long plane ride home. By the
time she came home this time, she was exhausted from hustling. At home, there was nothing to show for the money she had been sending to her family. A trip to the bank brought the stark news: there was less than $10 in her account.
Once more, Becky has turned to an Italian connection - a nonprofit venture called Tampep, aimed at rehabilitating women who have been deported from Italy. Tampep is teaching
Becky to cut hair, paying for her room and board.
Come January, however, Becky once again will be back to fending for herself, perhaps facing the same difficulties that drew her to Italy in the first place.
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