Cultural barriers present in human trafficking



As advocates, we care deeply about the men and women who are trapped, abused and exploited within the sex trafficking industry. This passion is such a wonderful thing, but it can also be blinding. Often, when we try to help people in extreme circumstances such as this, we forget to take any other situational factors into consideration. One of the most important factors we should take into consideration when attempting to help sex trafficking victims is cultural context.

Two key elements to consider are: religion/spirituality and family structures. Both of these elements, (and many others), work together to create a common set of values, ideas and perceptions among the members of a society. In many ways, culture is what brings people together. In some circumstances, however, culture can act as a barrier. This can be especially true in sex trafficking situations, in which cultural differences can act as an obstacle keeping victims from accessing help.

Throughout the past 15-years, tens of thousands of young women have left Nigeria for countries like Italy, Spain or the Netherlands, believing that they had secured jobs and would be able to help financially support their families back home, as well as themselves. Commonly, these women will sign a contract to a smuggler promising to pay the smuggler back the debts they will incur in travel expenses along the way. All too often, these women discover a very different life waiting for them once they cross the border. Upon arrival, they come to find that the debt they owe is much larger than they were initially led to believe - sometimes amounting to as much as $10,000. The only option given to them is to pay off this debt through prostitution.

Sex trafficking of women into Europe has seen a significant spike in recent years. The UN’s International Organization for Migration (IOM) reported that the number of potential sex trafficking victims entering Italy via the Mediterranean Sea increased by 600% between 2014 and 2017. The origin country of an estimated 80% of these women is Nigeria, specifically the Edo State.


Such situations are devastating for these women, who believed their journey into Europe was a promising escape from poverty. Multiple reports have arisen about trafficked women from Edo who were confronted with opportunities to escape, whether through rescue attempts by activists or deportation by authorities, and yet many refuse escape altogether, or return to Europe with their “madames” to finish paying off their debt.

The barrier keeping these women from trying to escape, even from leaving when given an opportunity to do so, is rooted in the payment contract they signed back in Edo. These contracts, drawn up between a young woman and the madame sponsoring her trip, are not only signed but also sealed with a spiritual pact, binding the woman to the contract through a “juju” (or voodoo) ritual performed by a priest. Of course, at the time that these pacts are made, the woman believes that the madame is helping her and does not yet know that her debt will be multiplied and she will be forced into prostitution when she reaches Europe, at which point it will be too late. Once the pact has been made and the ritual performed, breaking the contract before paying off the debt will mean that the woman is cursed and any amount of harm will come upon her or her family.

For the people of Edo, juju amounts to more than merely a spiritual belief. Instead, it is a culture in and of itself - a way of life. As a result, these spiritual contracts leave victims terrified, keeping them trapped in the sex trafficking industry until their debt has been paid. It also stops many women from coming forward and revealing their traffickers or the realities of their situations out of fear of breaking the pact with their madame.


In March of this year, following a meeting with the director of Nigeria’s anti-trafficking agency, the traditional ruler of Edo State’s Benin Kingdom, Oba Ewuare II, exerted his power above all other Benin priests and invoked a curse upon anyone who plays a role in human trafficking within his kingdom. He then lifted the curses that kept victims bound to their debt and would punish them if they broke their contract. Consequently, he also revoked the fear that has consumed many of these women and kept them trapped within a world of sexual exploitation and abuse.

In her opinion article for the New York Times, Nigerian author Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani applauds the oba’s actions, and predicts that the results will be far more impactful than any of the attempts made by anti-trafficking agencies or activists over the years.

The agency’s appeal to the oba is an example of using African solutions to solve African problems,” she writes, “Well-meaning foreign governments and groups can continue to inject millions of dollars into Africa to fix our problems, but those interventions would be much more effective if local people and customs were more deeply considered.”

And it is possible that she is absolutely right.

When anti-trafficking agencies and activists tried to save these women from their traffickers, they tried to help in the way that they saw as the most reasonable and effective: helping these women remove themselves from their exploitative situations. The reason why these attempts failed time and time again was because, for the Edo women, removal from the situation wasn’t the best way to help at all. The problem wasn’t necessarily escaping trafficking, it was the fact that they couldn’t escape for fear of ramifications they viewed as even worse than remaining in forced prostitution.

Well-meaning foreign governments and groups can continue to inject millions of dollars into Africa to fix our problems, but those interventions would be much more effective if local people and customs were more deeply considered.
— Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani

Religion and spirituality as a cultural barrier is clearly seen in the difficult circumstances of the trafficked Edo women. Their spiritual beliefs, in which themselves and their families could become victims of supernatural harm if they broke their debt contracts kept many of them from leaving their extremely abusive situations, even when presented with possible opportunities to do so.

Similarly, in a case study presented by Dr. Mary de Chesnay in her book, Sex Trafficking: A Clinical Guide for Nurses, a girl in Cambodia named Botum was married off at a young age because her parents couldn’t afford to support both her and her siblings. Not long after, her husband sold her to a brothel and arranged for the brothel owner to send Botum’s parents a small portion of her earnings. Botum quickly learned that if she cooperated she was helping her family, a strong Cambodian cultural value.” Botum was later trafficked into the United States, where she was put to work in an illicit massage parlor owned by a local gang. The gang members told her that they would begin sending money to her parents as soon as she paid off her travel debts, but Botum was arrested in a police raid and sent to a clinic for medical treatment. The healthcare providers tried to help her escape the sex trafficking situation, but Botum refused. She feared that if she stopped working as a prostitute, she would never get another opportunity to help her family. In her culture,” de Chesnay explains, “the value of helping family trumps personal freedom.


Throughout the rest of her book, de Chesnay addresses the importance of understanding a patient’s culture when attempting to help sex trafficking victims. She emphasizes the importance of cultural competence, which she defines as the ability to use information about another’s culture to provide care that the person can accept comfortably.” By using this approach, de Chesnay proposes, healthcare providers (and advocates alike) are better able to address the needs of a sex trafficking victim, as well as the barriers keeping them from accessing these needs.

When we take the time to think critically about the lives, socialization and cultures of the sexually exploited women we desire to help, we must keep in mind the cultural obstacles standing in the way of receiving those needs and encourage the organizations we support to treat them in a respectful and empowering way.


It is not too late to be a part of the impact!

Right now, thousands of people around the world are taking on the creative challenge of wearing a dress or tie in the month of December. The reason? To bring freedom to the 40+ million around the world still trapped in slavery. Your donation or participation in Dressember 2018 is part of a movement to end human trafficking for good.

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About the Author


Morgan Wiersma is a student at Chicago City Colleges, where she plans to finish her Associate in Arts this spring before beginning to pursue an undergrad in Creative Nonfiction and Social Sciences. She calls her cozy apartment in downtown Chicago home, and lives with her dwarf rabbit, Lola. A coffee enthusiast and avid writer, Morgan also enjoys small art projects, tea candles, and over-sized flannel shirts.