“The curse cannot be broken. Not even prayer can get rid of the JuJu.”
—Rose, a sex-trafficking victim
The scars on Rose’s body are like a roadmap of the hell she has endured. Cigarette burns from one client, a bent and broken pinkie finger from another. A thick, raised white line that cuts diagonally across her dark forehead down through her left eyebrow — a scar from a bottle that her madam broke over her head. Rose’s story of being trafficked from Nigeria to Italy as a sex slave seemed especially brutal. But when I asked Sister Rita, the nun who runs the shelter where I first met Rose, why she was so unlucky and why she had so many more scars than the other women, the nun corrected me. The only difference between Rose and the others, she said, was that the other women don’t talk about or show their scars.
I met Rose at Casa Ruth, a shelter for trafficked women run by Catholic nuns tucked along the main street in the Neapolitan Camorra stronghold of Caserta in southern Italy. It is one of the only places of refuge for sex-trafficked women who are forced to work in one of Europe’s busiest sex markets — the Via Domiziana, which intersects the nearby coastal town of Castel Volturno just north of Naples. In 2016, more than 11,000 Nigerian women came to Italy on the well-worn migrant trail which extends across the Sahara desert to the squalid detention camps in Libya before they even get to the Mediterranean Sea. The 2017 number will be slightly less, only because so many people are stuck in Libyan detention centers now. The International Organization for Migration says more than 80 percent of Nigerian women are trafficked for sex before they arrive in Italy. Many more fall into the trap once they reach relative safety. Most are between 14 and 20 years old.
Rose knew that she might end up in sex work when she came to Italy back in 2011. She had heard rumors of the sort in Nigeria, but had hoped it wouldn’t happen to her. In any case, she didn’t think she was attractive enough with her short, robust physique. Rose was told she could easily find work as a hair braider — a common lie used to lure women to Europe despite the fact that there are few salons that cater to African women in Italy. Those who fall victim to this lurid racket are told instead that there are many salons for all the successful Nigerian women who have come before them.
Like many Nigerian women and girls who end up in this part of Italy, Rose took part in a black magic JuJu ritual before she left her home in Benin City, but she doesn’t like to talk about it in detail because she still believes the curse could bring her harm. Most of the women who succumb to the ritual describe scenes that include the slaughter of goats or chickens. Most are also forced to leave with the witch doctor a little flap of skin cut from above their left nipple along with pubic hair and menstrual blood. The witch doctor wraps the items in a little package which is then used as leverage for the suspicious women who are told that as long as the witch doctor has their body bits, he has control over them. The ritual is usually performed in Nigeria, but there are also witch doctors in Italy who work with the madams.
Rose thought the JuJu ritual was just a promise to pay back those who helped arrange her journey. Her parents cobbled together what money they had to send with her. They viewed it as an investment so that she could soon start sending money home to help them. Rose estimates that she paid around $1,000, although she can’t be sure because at the time she didn’t know simple math or the value of money. But when she arrived, she owed her madam $56,000 to be paid back in sex acts for which she could charge no more than $25 a piece.