In 2007, 23-year-old Cheryl was working in a hospital in southern Nigeria. A patient’s brother told her that she could make more money in a European hospital if she went with him. Upon arriving in Italy, she quickly learned that she had been tricked into sex work.
"It was very dangerous. The first day I went in the night, three men attacked me," she says. "When they said they want to sleep with me, three of them at a time, I said ‘no,’ I cannot allow the three of you ... at [one] time. They brought out money, I said ‘no.’ We were arguing and arguing and arguing; we got to a point that the three of them started beating me. They beat me mercilessly. It was the other girls on the other side of the road who came and helped me out."
Nigerian women and girls have been trafficked to Italy for sex work since the 1980s, but now the United Nations estimates that 8,000 to 10,000 are forced into the country's street prostitution each year, making them the largest national group trafficked for the Italian sex trade.
According to Vittoria Luda di Cortemiglia, a program coordinator with the U.N. Interregional Crime and Justice Research Institute, Nigerian traffickers prefer Italy because of existing networks.
"Many Nigerian nationals actually are living in the country, so this is also the reason why the contacts of the two countries are still very, very strong," she says.
Oaths sworn by black magic
Nigerian trafficking is unique due to the use of juju, or black magic, in cementing the agreement between victim and trafficker. Before leaving Nigeria, the girls often go through a ritual in which they swear to reimburse "sponsors," with interest, for the trip.
Helen, for example, was 23 years old and working as an artist when she agreed to go to Europe.
"They cut my [finger]nails, the hair in my armpit, my hair, and the pad I use for my menstruation, with my blood," she says, describing the ritual. "They took it from me and they [then] killed this fowl -- [and said] I need to eat the heart of the fowl, raw, to swear.”
Like the other trafficked Nigerians, once Helen discovered her fate, the traffickers threatened to harm her family in Africa if she broke the oath.
Many young Nigerian women and girls believe so strongly in juju they are too terrified to attempt to escape. Mostly uneducated, they have no understanding of exchange rates or interest rates, and they end up promising repayments of $40,000 to $78,000.
One sex worker says her madam, or pimp, demanded repayments of 1,000 euro [$1,300] within 10 days. With sexual transactions rated as low as $13, many trafficked sex workers must have sex with at least 10 men per day to meet the quota.
Rosanna Paradiso, president of TAMPEP, an international anti-trafficking organization based in Turin, says one of the group’s main objectives is to help sex workers protect themselves from HIV and other sexually-transmitted diseases.
"Regarding all clients -- especially Italians, in this case - they told us that most of them ask for sex intercourse without condom, without protection," says Paradiso. "And this is the big problem."
For some, such as Cheryl, who now works in a factory near Turin and has made a better life for herself, there is hope.
"Prostitution is not the best," she says. "It’s a life with pain, with tears inside. If I have the privilege to tell other people who work in the street to leave, I will do so, because I understand it, and I know what it means."