Meet The Lawyer Who Fights Sex Trafficking – From The Street To The UN

Ms Esohe Aghatise is a member of EIGE’s Women and Men Inspiring Europe Resource-Pool. Her photo was taken to illustrate her profile.
Refinery29 met Dr. Esohe Aghatise through the charity Equality Now, a human rights organisation with a particular focus on ending violence and discrimination against women and girls. They told us Aghatise was the woman to speak to when it came to the subject of sex trafficking, because she lobbies against it from the very bottom up.

A lawyer by day, Aghatise consults with police services about crimes involving sex trafficking, testifies in court in cases relating to victims of trafficking, and consults with the United Nations about how laws should be changed to protect people – across the globe – who are forced to sell sex.

Aghatise is Nigerian herself, and takes particular interest in helping women who are trafficked from Africa to Europe, where they are made to sell sex in brothels in countries like Germany, Italy, Spain and even the UK (where Aghatise is currently based).

“Because of the specific conditions of the Nigerian women I met, I felt a need to do more,” she tells Refinery29, “So I set up an organisation in Italy called IROKO – a charity that provides direct services to victims of abuse and trafficking.”

We talked to Esohe about the kinds of services women who have been trafficked require, how they came to be trafficked in the first place, and what kind of laws and social attitudes need to change to prevent victims from being forced into situations where their rights are violently abused.

How did you get into this line of work?
It happened by chance, really. I studied International Economic and Trade Law in Nigeria, and I got a scholarship to go to Italy and study. I was doing my postgraduate there when I was contacted by the local police regarding a case about trafficking – they wanted me to confirm reports by Nigerian women as a translator. I stayed on for my PHD, and was contacted by the municipal council to explain the cultural background of trafficked women from Nigeria. That's how it started.

You have since worked on a grassroots level providing services for people who have been trafficked to sell sex. What kind of services do those people need?
Support services to help them exit the world of exploitation. We provide shelters in Turin, and language support – because many of them cannot speak the local language. We helped with employment searches and training in terms of setting up their own businesses.

Most of the traffickers would be members of the family, friends and neighbours of the victims.

What do we know in terms of research into how and why this is happening?
One of of the things I did was travel to Nigeria with a colleague for 40 days, partly funded by the UN, and we interviewed people to try and find the reasons that sex trafficking happens. My organisation produced a short documentary that we used to tell the story of what happened to these women when they are trafficked. Most were trying to exit situations of poverty.

It’s a very strange situation in the Nigerian context, which differs to the Eastern European situation in that the traffickers were mainly women who had once been victims themselves. Most of the traffickers would be members of the family, friends and neighbours of the victims. This means that the victims don’t want to come forward and report because they don’t want to start a war between families.

You then have a system where they are passed from one group of people to the other: the family, friends and neighbours will contact the men who physically transport the trafficked person. This will be a group of men who collaborate to take the women in cars and lorries along the West African coast, usually through Libya and across into Europe. Although they are now finding new routes.

Is that to do with European border policy tightening?
That has to do in part with tighter controls by the governments. The Nigerian government how have an agency specifically to fight trafficking. And there are quite a lot of controls through the old trafficking route, so it became too dangerous for traffickers and they needed to look for new options. More recently, they travel with economic migrants or refugees on boats, or through the United Arab Emirates, or fly girls to Russia with fake passports and then take them on to Europe.
How does the financial aspect work – are the people who find girls for the traffickers given a one-time fee, or is money wired back to them from Europe?
What happens is that the traffickers who live in Nigeria have transfers sent to them by the appointed agents in Europe; Italy, France and Spain. The agents send the money back to those local women who exploit the victim. But there is a lot of continuous asking for money.

Then, the men in Europe usually set an amount, at the moment 60,000 - 120,000 Euros is common – after which the woman is meant to be free. It’s like a debt to be paid off. But in reality, they are made to pay a monthly rent, and pay for wigs, tight clothing, shoes… and they are made to give donations and gifts to the agents... to their exploiters. So they pay much more in the end.

These women are in conditions that are extremely violent, being made to have sex between 20 and 100 times a day.

What keeps the women there until their debt is paid?
Before they go they are made to do what is called in the West “voodoo rights”, or in Nigeria “Juju rights”, where part of their body – the nails, hair or menstrual blood, for example, is collected, taken before a shrine, then they are told to eat or drink something. So, something is taken out of their body and something is put in – and then they are made to swear respect to the agreement that they will pay an unrealistic amount, or else they or members of their family will be punished by the juju.

It’s part of the process they have to go through before they leave the country. It gives the trafficker the assurance that they are going to be malleable, obedient and not going to cause issues. It’s a very strong psychological control.

And what are the conditions like for these victims, in Europe, from your experience?
Think of Nigerian women in a brothel, 100 women, and that brothel has the opportunity to say to the public, "For 50 or 60 Euros, you can have as many women as you want". Men who think that’s quite affordable... to give you an idea, say 2000 men in a day... could pay for access to these women's bodies.

Now, here’s a different situation: think of a woman with her boyfriend, who she loves and with whom she loves to have sex – how many times in one day can this couple have sex with each other? I think that even three times a day would be considered excessive by some people.

These women are in conditions that are extremely violent, being made to have sex between 20 and 100 times a day. People say that the sex trade is "consensual adults", but does that sound consensual? I think it can be described as torture. And the women have to be there because they don’t have any other option.

Will they be punished or threatened with violence if they do not comply to this?
Many are compliant because they get a lot of pressure from their family members back home who are also being pressured by the traffickers, who say, “We will burn down your homes”. Few are courageous enough to run away. I’ve seen situations of women who are chained to beds. It becomes the slave trade. I saw a lady whose skin was ironed because she did not obey.

In one case, a young girl who was 16 was gang-raped by an exploiter's boyfriend in Nigeria to prepare her for what she had to do. Afterwards, she had to have her genitals stitched back together and was unable to have children. That message is not out there, the visual images are not out there; people think prostitution is work but often it is subjugation or slavery.

When these women are taken to these countries, they go there because they have absolutely no alternative

In terms of social attitudes towards the sex trade, what do you think needs to change?
When we talk about prostitution and trafficking, it is often taken in the abstract, without the details. But it’s important to look at the details to understand what it really means. People think of the consensual exchange of sex between adults for money. But when these women are taken to these countries, they go there because they have absolutely no alternative. They come from situations of extreme desperation and poverty where they need to have money to take care of themselves and their families. Anything goes at that point.

In Germany, the sex trade was legalised, and the effect has really just been to legitimise the mistreatment of people selling sex. In Nordic countries however, there is a legislation that says the person buying sex should be penalised, rather than the person selling – this seems to be more effective, would you agree with this?
Yes. At Equality Now we think that it is extremely important for Amnesty International and other organisations to look at what fuels the demand for prostitution and trafficking.

There is a lot of resistance to changes in legislation, whereby people say, “It has always been like that”. But that doesn’t make it right. People need to look at the violence that is happening and say, “This is not something we can call a human right or a right for women"… allowing someone out there to go through torture is not okay. It’s the same as slavery, and if slavery was abolished, so too should the sex trade.

Read more about sex trafficking and the work Equality Now do here.

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