An Ancient Curse Kept Nigerian Women Bound to Sex Slavery. Now, It's Been Reversed

After spending 15 months in captivity in a run-down brothel in the Italian city of Torino, Wealth finally saw her chance to escape. The 23-year-old Nigerian had scraped together nearly 50 euros in tips from a couple of regulars and so one winter afternoon, with her madam absent, she decided to slip out the door. It was her first time outside in months. She stopped at the local grocery store, where she spent everything she had on chocolate and cakes. For several minutes she huddled outside, gorging on the sweets and forgetting, just for a moment, the shame, humiliation and torture she had endured ever since arriving in Italy for what a friend had falsely told her was going to be a job selling African food and trinkets.

A college graduate with a degree in laboratory science, Wealth, like millions of other young Nigerians, had been unable to find a job in her hometown of Benin City in southwestern Nigeria. Beguiled by accounts of easy money in Europe, she contacted her friend’s boss in Italy, who offered to pay her travel costs up front. Wealth, who asked to go by the English translation of her first name in order to protect her privacy, agreed to pay the sponsor back out of her wages. Before she left for Italy in 2012, she swore an unbreakable oath, conducted by a ‘juju’ priest, to pay back her soon-to-be boss and madam and never betray her.

Yet when Wealth arrived in Italy her new boss told her how much she owed—65,000 euros, or $80,000—and showed her the red light district where she would be expected to work off her debt. Wealth, small but determined, refused to walk the streets. Her madam locked her up in a bedroom and sent clients to her instead. Wealth was forced to service several men a day, sometimes several at once, she tells TIME in an interview. When she escaped, she had worked off a third of her debt. Another three years, she figured, and she would be free.


Eziza, a juju priest, near his shrine outside Benin City on March 23.


Lynsey Addario—Verbatim for TIME

Wealth is just one of tens of thousands of young women from Nigeria who have been trafficked to Europe for sexual exploitation over the past 15 years, according to the Nigerian National Agency for the Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons (NAPTIP), which was founded in 2003 to combat the problem. The International Organization for Migration estimates that 80% of Nigerian women traveling to Libya and attempting to then cross the Mediterranean are being trafficked into the European sex trade. Most, like Wealth, are from Nigeria’s southwestern Edo State, and its capital, Benin City, where a combination of poverty and lack of opportunity have driven thousands of young women, who are expected to financially support their families, to seek their fortune abroad. But it is that primitive oath—the ancient ritual Wealth participated in before she left Italy—that keeps many young Nigerian women bound to the sex trafficking trade, desperately afraid of the curse that might befall them if they break its terms.

The power of the “juju” curse shouldn’t be underestimated, says trafficking expert Siddharth Kara, director of the program on Human Trafficking and Modern Slavery at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government and author of Sex Trafficking: Inside the Business of Modern Slavery. It makes the sex trafficking trade particularly lucrative and nearly impossible to prosecute. The oath-taking ceremony, conducted by a ‘juju’ priest and performed in front of a carved wooden idol, is typically accompanied by animal sacrifice and incantations. In Wealth’s case, she offered up snippets of her fingernails, pubic hair, menstrual blood and undergarments, which the priest bound into a small bundle and blessed. As long as the bundle remained at the shrine, Wealth would be bound to her oath. If she broke it, she would be cursed.

That winter afternoon, as she dusted the last few crumbs of chocolate from her hands, the Italian police pulled up and asked to see her documents. She didn’t have any. When they couldn’t get through to the only contact number Wealth could provide, that of her madam, they deported her to Nigeria within days.

Wealth should have felt liberated. Instead, she was terrified. When Wealth’s former madam tracked her down a few months after her return to Nigeria, she felt like she had no choice but to return to Italy. “It was a terrible fate, I know. But I wanted to pay off the debt. If I didn’t, the curse would hunt me down, kill me, kill my family,” she says, speaking to TIME in Benin City. In January 2014, forged paperwork in hand, she boarded another flight bound for Europe, traumatized by memories of what she was returning to, but also petrified by the thought of breaking her oath.

“The level of control achieved by these oaths is greater than anything I have seen in any other human trafficking context,” says Kara. “You could not invent a better system for control and coercion. You have them believe that their spirit, their soul, their womb—everything—is under the threat of an irrefutable, irrevocable curse unless they do what they’re told.”

Learn more at TIME

Elana Alipingwomen, justice