Heights group provides hope to women trapped in global sex trade
Although Sr. Anthonia Ugheighele has worked with Nigerian women caught in the horror of human trafficking and prostitution in Italy for 13 years, their suffering still brings her to tears.
In November, she took the podium to accept an award from International Partners in Mission (IPM). She began by describing her first encounter with the international criminal enterprise that promises jobs to impoverished girls and women in Nigeria, sends them on a harrowing passage across North Africa and the Mediterranean Sea, and then traps them in Europe’s sex trade.
“To see women like me,” she began, then paused. “I saw human beings treated like objects,” she continued. Women were stacked like blocks of wood and hidden under cargo in the back of trucks. Sometimes women were even sent across the Mediterranean in a sea vessel without an experienced sailor; instead one woman is given instructions on navigating to Europe.
Their plight moved her congregation in Benin City, Nigeria, to send Ugheighele and two colleagues to Castel Volturna, Italy, a hub of the sex trade located north of Naples, where the women meet customers. The sisters offer food, shelter and rehabilitation in a program known as Speranza II/Project of Hope.
Since 2003, IPM has partnered with Speranza II/Project Hope. IPM, a nonprofit agency headquartered in Cleveland Heights, provides seed funding, training and technical support to small, community-based projects in more than 20 countries around the world. IPM has helped Sr. Anthonia and her colleagues in their work providing vocational training, computer skills, Italian language instruction and sewing lessons so that the women can generate income.
About 100 women have been through the program. Many obtain legitimate work in Italy or other countries, earn resident status and send for family members. Others return to Nigeria and reconcile with their families with help from religious organizations there.
In the past, Nigerians had migrated to Italy to work in agriculture. By the 1990s, prostitution rings run by Nigerian and Italian crime organizations sprang up.
Most traffickers in Castel Volturno are Nigerian women—madams. To recruit, they travel to Nigeria, where girls are less valued than boys and often seen as burdens to their families. The madams entice them with tales of schooling and good jobs. Sometimes, families urge the women to leave so that they can begin sending money home.
Not a single woman participating in Speranza II/Project Hope has returned to the streets, Ugheighele told IPM staff, donors and partners at the award luncheon. “We are grateful to all of you who have helped IPM to be able to give life and hope to these women again. This is a thing of joy to us.”
For more information about IPM's work with children, women and youth, visit www.ipmconnect.org.
Carol Pearson is a freelance writer and IPM volunteer.