© 2019 - International Centre for Investigative Reporting
Mental disorder high among Nigerian prostitutes in Italy — and juju is to blame
Italian psychiatrists and psychologists are struggling to help free Nigerian women forced into prostitution in Italy, according to the Guardian UK.
Psychologists in hospitals across Sicily say they are witnessing a growing mental health crisis among Nigerians who have been persuaded to leave their traffickers by the authorities or NGOs.
At the Vittorio Emanuele Hospital in Catania, 20 Nigerian women are being treated by the psychiatric department – double the number last year.
The psychologists say that while they understand the women’s psychotic episodes, hallucinations, panic attacks, insomnia and fits to be the physical signs of post-traumatic stress disorders, the women themselves see them as victims of juju punishment for leaving their traffickers and breaking their oaths. The psychiatrists admit they are at a loss to know how to help the women.
“It is pointless trying to say that these curses are not real, these women need to believe in a treatment or solution and there is an impenetrable wall between our two belief systems,” says one of the psychiatrists. “Our approach of western psychology is virtually useless in these cases.”
The report says juju curses are potentially keeping tens of thousands of Nigerian women under the control of human traffickers across Europe.
According to the report, the abuse of religious and cultural belief systems in Nigeria has proven a deadly and effective control mechanism for traffickers involved in the recruitment of women destined for the sex trade in Europe.
Before leaving Nigeria, many of them would have been made to undergo traditional oath-taking ceremonies involving complicated and frightening rituals often using the women’s blood, hair and clothing. These rituals – which have become known as the “juju” – bond the woman to her trafficker and to any debts she will incur. The rituals make it clear that failure to pay off those debts will result in terrible things happening to the woman and her family.
A hugely profitable and well-organised criminal industry has been operating between Italy and Nigeria for more than two decades but the UN’s International Organisation for Migration says it has seen an almost 600% rise in the number of potential sex trafficking victims arriving in Italy by sea over the past three years.
In 2016, more than 11,000 Nigerian women reached the landing points in Sicily, with more than 80% of them victims of trafficking and destined for a life of forced prostitution on street corners and in brothels across Italy and Europe.
Prosecutors say that the juju’s hold over the women is hindering their fight against the traffickers. “Because of the juju, Nigerian women become the perfect victims of sexual slavery,” says Salvatore Vella, a prosecutor in Agrigento.
“Gangs know they can trust them, they know women are not going to report them to the police because they are afraid of the consequences for breaking the juju. And this makes our investigation harder.
It is almost impossible to find witnesses among Nigerian prostitutes because of the ritual. Maybe one in 20 is ready to speak out. The rest of them are stuck in a wall of silence and fear.’’
The report says the influence of a handful of West African self-styled Pentecostal priests and traditional healers who are claiming to exorcise juju spells is now on the rise.
A Ghanaian priestess in the Pentecostal Church of Odasani in Palermo claims to have been freeing the Nigerian women under the juju curse.
“Nigerian women come to me for help, they have bad spirits that have been put inside their bodies by people who want to make money from them,” says the self-proclaimed prophetess as she prepares to start her service.
“The spirit is forcing them to remain in a life of prostitution. When they come to Europe and realise they can’t live this life, they come to me and I help free them of this juju forever.”