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Bring Back Our Girls: The Problem is the Slave Market

On Tuesday, Abubakar Shekau, the leader of the militant group that kidnapped more than 200 girls from a school in northern Nigeria, stood before a military truck guarded by masked men holding AK-47s and told cameras he was going to sell his hostages.  With laughter in his voice, Boko Haram’s leader said:

I abducted your girls. There is a market for selling humans. Allah says I should sell. He commands me to sell. I will sell women. I sell women.

The international community has since caught fire with outrage against this act, as well as the Nigerian government’s failure to get the girls back. I certainly encourage anyone reading this post to join the worldwide demands for action and to express condemnation, not only for the kidnappers, but for the Nigerian government’s unconscionable inattention to the crime. Here, however, I wish also to bring forward some background elements that I think are worth considering as we evaluate this situation and plan future steps.

First, I think it is crucial to recognize that, regardless of the religious or national or military aggravations at stake, this threat would not be meaningful if there were not already a highly developed market for humans—especially post-pubescent girls—in West Africa. This region is a central hub for an efficient global trade in sex slaves and domestic servants. This existing system guarantees that these militants can quickly get a good price through an invisible transaction. There would be no bodies to discover, no path to track. The chance that those girls are already gone—very likely to Europe or the US—to work as slaves is high. It has been a month since they were taken—a month is more than enough time for them to completely disappear into this system.

Indeed, the U. S. State Department’s 2013 Trafficking in Persons report remarks that:

Nigeria is a source, transit, and destination country for women and children subjected to forced labor and sex trafficking. Trafficked Nigerians are recruited from rural and, to a lesser extent, urban areas within the country; women and girls for domestic servitude and sex trafficking, and boys for forced labor in street vending, domestic service, mining, stone quarrying, agriculture, and begging. Nigerian women and children are taken from Nigeria to other West and Central African countries, as well as to South Africa, where they are exploited for the same purposes. . . . Nigerian women and girls. . . are subjected to forced prostitution in Italy, while Nigerian women and girls from other states are subjected to forced prostitution in Spain, Scotland, the Netherlands, Germany, Turkey, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Sweden, Switzerland, Norway, Ireland, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Greece, and Russia. Nigerian women and children are also recruited and transported to destinations in North Africa, the Middle East, and Central Asia. . .

The State Department goes on to note that the European Police Organization (EUROPOL) has identified Nigerian organized crime related to trafficking in persons as one of the largest law enforcement challenges to European governments. There is also considerable human trafficking within Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country. The report ranks Nigeria as a Tier 2 country for trafficking, a designation for governments that are showing only modest efforts to counter the slave trade.

This map of the global slave trade shows destination countries for slaves in shades of blue, while origination countries are in organe and red.  That one red  country in West Africa is Nigeria.  The grey countries are places for which there are no data.  It is usually a bad sign when there is no data.

This map of the global slave trade shows destination countries for slaves in shades of blue, while origination countries are in orange and red. That one red country in West Africa is Nigeria.

Sending military troops into Chibok to look for the girls thus may be an empty gesture. It is also high irony: the crime might not have been committed if these same troops had not been terrorizing other females in the first place. Boko Haram announced nearly a year ago that it would begin kidnapping and selling females in retaliation for the actions of the Nigerian military, who had been kidnapping the Islamist group’s wives and daughters. In the past year since Boko Haram’s declaration of intent, the militants have kidnapped a number of females. There has been no outcry until now—and we are only hearing about this particular kidnapping a month after the event. One might conclude that Nigeria does not seem to care very much about the traffic in women within its borders.

The most recent news reports have underscored the culpability of the Nigerian government in the situation. Both the UK and the US say they offered assistance immediately after the kidnapping, but Nigeria refused it. Indeed, Amnesty International claims that the government knew this incident was going to occur in advance—by about four hours! Nigeria, of course, is saying that Amnesty’s claim is baseless. However, the international rights group surely has more credibility in the moment than does the leadership in Nigeria. The Telegraph reports that the girls were held near the school from which they were taken for 11 days–and the Nigerian government did nothing. President Goodluck Jonathan has voiced only falsehoods, empty promises, and platitudes in response to the protests that have swelled in Abuja. Most upsetting is the reaction of his wife, Patience, who claimed that the kidnappings were a fabrication meant to smear her husband’s name and make Nigeria look bad.  She ordered all Nigerian women to stop protesting and threatened them, saying “should anything happen to them during protests, they should blame themselves.” 

Much is also being made of the coincidence of this kidnapping with the announcement of Nigeria’s suddenly huge economy (grown in a flash by changing their means of calculating GDP) and with the World Economic Forum meeting this week. Most media commentators are treating the kidnapping as if it were a military/religious issue detracting from Nigeria’s economic achievement and do not recognize the economic enabler: there is an underground market in humans lying beneath the Nigerian economy.

The World Economic Forum likes to position itself as a “good guy” on gender issues, though they include very few women in their meetings.  One might ask why the WEF still went to Nigeria this week, in spite of the kidnapping incident and the Nigerian government’s inaction.  Speakers at the conference glossed over the kidnapping, treating it as a short-term blip in Africa’s otherwise glorious economic outlook, rather than confronting the long-term implications of letting the slave trade fester.  It is disgusting to see international economic leadership minimizing this problem.

Jim took this picture in Ghana in 2009.  These girls are so pretty--this is one of my favorite photos.  Unfortunately, poor girls in Ghana are at risk for enslavement all the time, whether there are Islamist extremists hiding in the bushes or not.

Jim took this picture in Ghana in 2009. These girls are so pretty–this is one of my favorite photos. Unfortunately, poor girls in Ghana are at risk for enslavement all the time, whether there are Islamist extremists hiding in the bushes or not.

I became painfully aware of the reality of slavery in West Africa when conducting research in Ghana in 2008/2009. There, as in other poor countries, many girls run away to the cities to look for work or escape an arranged marriage–then they fall into prostitution and, sometimes, find themselves enslaved. Some of them are actually sold into slavery by their own parents. Lack of opportunity, poverty, traditional gender restrictions, and poor education come together to build this phenomenon.

Our local partner in the Ghana research was a well-known slave rescue activist.  She had endured many threats to her personal safety and that of her family, trying to free slaves (which is why I am not mentioning her name).  On our long drives across Ghana, she told me stories of the sad trade across the countries in the region.  Today, one of those is haunting me:  she said the slavers will take a group of girls out of a truck and sort them into “pretty” and “ugly,” then send the pretty ones off to be sex slaves and the rest into domestic service.  She said it happens in minutes and then the girls are gone.

The man who managed all our transportation in Ghana became a close friend during those years. He also is an activist and gives much of his own time and money trying to help street children, including the girls at risk in the cities. He would take me out late at night to show me girls sleeping in doorways, washing on curbsides. Hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of them. These girls are easy prey to slavers, who make them promises and then take their freedom.

Back the UK, I read everything I could about the world slavery explosion (I recommend Kevin Bales’ books to those who want to learn more). I learned that the slave trade is very efficient, moving bodies across boundaries daily and making good use of both high technology and local corruption. Indeed, the police/military are very often involved in it—or at least paid to keep quiet. Kidnapped girls can be “distributed” quickly and invisibly, right alongside guns and drugs. All this activity carries horrible violence with it, threatening communities everywhere—regardless of the religions at the local level.

Most people picture males when they think of slavery  (picking cotton, building the pyramids), but most slaves today are female.  The source here is the new United Nations Global Report on Trafficking in Persons.

Most people picture males when they think of slavery (picking cotton, building the pyramids), but most slaves today are female. The source here is the new United Nations Global Report on Trafficking in Persons.

We recognize the hostility and instability that comes with the drug trade and the gun racket—but we aren’t as cognizant of the lucrative trade in female bodies that constitutes a third “product line” for these same organizations. Yet this trade in girls is as disruptive to world peace as is any other organized criminal activity. And it is, at base, an economic phenomenon.

One of the reasons this market can continue to operate unseen is that decent citizens, especially in the West, are unaware of the massive scope of today’s slave trade. Americans think slavery was wiped from the map by their Civil War and Brits think William Wilberforce banished it forever in 1807. But today’s slave trade is bigger than it has ever been in history. Men and boys are sold, yes, but in smaller numbers. By far the bulk of the slave trade today is in teenage girls. Kevin Bales argues that because most ordinary people believe slavery is over, they aren’t looking for the signs of slavery in their community, wouldn’t know the signs if they saw them, think slavery looks differently than it does (grown black males, not all colors of young women), and so the trade continues right under their noses. Nail salons are particularly important to the slave trade. Think about that.

So it never made sense to think Boko Haram would kill the girls, once they had them. They are worth money and easy to sell. A quick transaction leaves no bodies and no trace, but makes the militants richer. Now, with all the media illustrating the success of this strategy, we may see an increase in such actions by all kinds of splinter groups.

We need to hold governments accountable for enforcing the international prohibition on human trafficking in a way that we have not done in the past. We also must become informed citizens ourselves, so that we can report suspicious activity when we see it. (Bales argues that an informed citizenry is the best defense against slavery.)

We should also hold countries like Nigeria accountable for the conditions that create this market. Poverty is the main fuel. This week, with Nigeria still boasting about its big GDP and the WEF flashing its approval, the rest of us need to remember that this country has an elite getting rich on the backs of a tragically impoverished people.

International human trafficking affects us all. Until governments get serious about this issue, all of our daughters could be at risk. So, while we are hoping and praying and marching for the Nigerian girls’ return, I think we also need to look through the media’s presentation of the situation (as a military rescue, a religious dispute, a governmental standoff) and recognize the underlying reality of a world economy that allows the selling of women into slavery.


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