Timipriye says her uncle’s wife told her that they wanted to take her with them to Lagos, where she’d be taken care of and sent to university.
“With so many promises, I was very, very excited,” she says, shyly, telling her story for the first time. “I immediately said I wanted to go with them.”
At the time, Timipriye was 16 and living Nigeria’s south, in a rural village about 350 kilometers (210 miles) from the bustling commercial capital, Lagos.
Her life at home was hard. Her parents struggled to provide enough food for Timipriye and her 10 siblings and were quick to agree to her move.
Timipriye falls silent — for a long, long time. When she starts talking again, her words tumble over each other in her effort to get them out.
What has happened since was nothing like what she was promised, she says.
Instead of attending school, she wakes now at 3 a.m., her days passing in a blur of domestic chores and babysitting her uncle’s triplets.
She gobbles down her food to avoid getting in trouble for loafing — she fears the punishment. Once when she didn’t get out of the car quickly enough, her aunt slammed the car door on her hand. Despite the excruciating pain in her fingers, that evening she still had to wash the triplets’ clothes by hand.
To add to the horror of Timipriye’s life in Lagos, she is sexually abused by her uncle. He barges in on her while she is bathing and enters her room late at night.
“Even when I try to stop it by locking my door inside before I sleep, it was a problem because he then starts treating me badly and then told me I shouldn’t ever lock the door when I’m sleeping,” Timipriye says.
“Every night before I sleep, I always cry and wet my pillow,” she says, adding that she can’t even ring her parents to tell them what is happening because she doesn’t have a phone, or the money, to make a call.
Child trafficking rampant
Timipriye, who has been working for her uncle’s family for four years now, is a victim of child trafficking.
That is when children and young people are tricked, forced or persuaded to leave their homes, and are then moved somewhere and exploited for someone else’s gain.
In Nigeria, children make up the largest group of trafficking victims. They are trafficked for many reasons, from domestic service like Timipriye to sexual exploitation, being used as child soldiers, forced begging, organ harvesting and even forced surrogacy in “baby farms” where they are impregnated and made to give birth.
Of the people trafficked in Nigeria, the highest proportion are girls between the ages of 12 and 17.
The vast majority, like Timipriye, are transported within Nigeria.
Whether someone moves 10 kilometers from one community to another, or thousands of kilometers to another continent, the “common denominator” for human trafficking is “exploitation,” says Daniel Atokolo, Nigeria’s National Agency for the Prohibition of Trafficking In Persons.
Though international organizations largely agree that Nigeria has improved its efforts to tackle trafficking, the scope of the problem is still enormous.
Almost 1.4 million individuals were living in modern slavery in Nigeria in 2018, according to an estimate by the Walk Free Foundation, an international human rights group that publishes a global slavery index.
Tricked by a trusted adult
As is the case with Timipriye, it is often relatives, friends or trusted community members who either directly exploit trafficked children, or who procure the child for someone else.
Poverty is seen as the root cause of making children vulnerable to trafficking.
Recruiters are most likely to approach “the poorest and most vulnerable” and the “illiterate and psychologically weak” finds a study by the Pathfinders Justice Initiative, an organization working with Nigerian trafficking survivors.
These recruiters are seldom caught. The 2021 Trafficking in Persons report for Nigeria, compiled by the US government, reports only 36 convictions of traffickers.
The failure to hold traffickers to account means that the few survivors who manage to escape often still live in fear of violence, or fear of their families being harmed, if their traffickers find them.
This is the case with Ivie, who was trafficked to Italy and forced to into sex work when she was 15 after a trusted family friend promised to take her to Europe and find her a job as a babysitter and a place at a school.
Her traffickers locked Ivie up with no food until she caved into their wishes. The International Organization for Migration estimates that 80% of the young Nigerian women who arrive in Italy are likely forced into prostitution as sex trafficking victims.
Ivie escaped after she told her story to a client who had commented that she was too young to be doing sex work. He connected her with Catholic nuns who helped her escape and eventually return to Nigeria.
Back at home, Ivie’s nightmare isn’t over. She lives in constant fear as the trafficking syndicate is hounding her and her parents, saying Ivie owes them large sums of money — in US dollars – that they spent on her travel expenses.
Ivie now can’t live with her family nor sleep at home; she constantly moves from one place to the next to avoid being found by the trafficking ring.
No happy ending
Ivie does have a small spark of home in her life, though: Some good Samaritans are helping her learn a vocation and trying to find her place where she can stay permanently.
But she is still traumatized by her experience. Medical experts, such as Babatunde Fadipe, a psychiatrist at the Lagos University Teaching Hospital, say people who have been victims of human trafficking can experience a wide range of psychological problems from anger to anxiety and depression.
As for Timipriye, she is too scared to leave her uncle’s family. He is a lawyer and a powerful person, she says.
She met with DW in secret at a neighbor’s house while her aunt and uncle were away, summoning up the courage to share her story in the hope of helping prevent other children from being trafficked.
She also has this message for parents: “Don’t entrust your child to anybody to take care of them for you.”
Edited by: Kate Hairsine