After Funmi and Kemisola wrote their final exams of the session, they returned home to meet a female relative who had convinced their mother to allow her take the teenage sisters to a wealthy home in Calabar, where they were expected to work as housemaids for a monthly pay and an opportunity to complete their secondary education in a reputable public school.
Unknown to the girls and their mother, the woman they thought was going to help them improve their fortunes was actually an agent for a sex trafficking ring dragging young girls into commercial sex work and exploiting them in the process.
“She took us to Calabar to live with many other girls our age in a small two bedroom flat owned by a woman who became our madam.” Funmi, who was 16 when she and her younger sister arrived in Calabar on the last day of August, told Opera News. “The woman stayed in one room and squeezed about seven girls, including my sister and I in the other room.”
Instead of serving “responsible” families as the woman who took them out of Lagos had informed them, the girls were told they were going to be introduced to men whom they must “work hard to satisfy”.
“Our madam said we had to work for her during the period of [school] holiday,” said Funmi. “She told us we were not going to be working with any family until in September, when schools reopen.”
But September ended with the girls still stuck with their madam who told them that they would have to wait until the start of the following year which, according to her, was when new families usually make requests for maids.
“She said the people we were supposed to work for had travelled out of the country and so we had to wait until January so that she can get us a new family,” Funmi said of her benefactor. “For the other girls, she simply told them they were no availability for them until the next year.”
“Every evening, she would send at least one girl to go spend the night with a man,” Funmi added.
Although not widely reported in the media, human trafficking within Nigeria is rampant in the country. A recent report released by Plan International revealed that more than 75 percent of human trafficking cases take place domestically and involves movement of persons from rural areas to urban centres.
About 51 percent of girls trafficked in Nigeria are less than 24 years of age and 84 percent are trafficked for the purpose of sexual exploitation, according to the Plan report which also noted that internal human trafficking has risen significantly in the last two decades from rural communities to urban cities like Lagos, Abeokuta, Ibadan, Kano, Kaduna, Calabar, FCT and Port Harcourt.
“Moving young girls from village to cities with mouth-watering offers of job only to be used as sex slave is nothing but trafficking,” Dr. Orji Ogbureke, Acting Country Director of Plan International, said at the launch of No To Trafficking Campaign and presentation of Report Research on trafficking of girls and young women in Nigeria. “Ninety-nine percent of girls trafficked is for sexual exploitation. Others are for trade and labour.
In Calabar, Funmi and Kemisola were uncomfortable with the idea of doing sex work and contemplated running away from their madam, but they feared they could be caught if they tried to escape and punished by their benefactor for doing so.
“The woman (their madam) has friends all over the area who often kept an eye on what the girls living with her did.” Kemisola, who is 14 years of age, told Opera News. “They reached her straight away if they saw you where you shouldn’t be.”
One evening in early December, a male visitor came to the apartment where the girls stayed and began to touch the sisters inappropriately. As soon as the visitor departed, Funmi and Kemisola turned to their madam and told her they were leaving the flat right away. The woman refused to let them go and held each of the girls tightly with her two hands. The sisters overpowered her and ran to the vigilantes on the street who immediately stormed the compound and moved all the girls to the nearby home of a woman who was willing to take them in. Their trafficker escaped.
The following day, a number of locals raised money to transport the girls back to where they originally came from. Funmi and Kemisola each got 10,000 naira for their transport fare back to Lagos. The other five girls who lived with the sisters came from communities in the southeast and so were supported with cash enough to transport them back to their hometowns.
“We are happy we were able to put a stop to what was going on where we lived,” Kemisola said in Calabar shortly before the girls departed by bus to Lagos. “My sister and I will go back to our mother in Lagos.”