The brave fight mounted by religious sisters against human traffickers in Nigeria has been a key highlight of the ongoing conference that has brought together religious men and women in the west African country.
There have been increasing cases of human trafficking and sexual slavery in Nigeria amid reported public outcry that government interventions are not yielding much. Recent reports indicate that, of the over 20,000 Nigerian women who went to Italy in the last three years, 80 per cent of them ended up as victims of human trafficking.
However, addressing major superiors of different religious orders gathered at the Catholic Institute of West Africa (CIWA) in Port Harcourt for a week-long joint conference, Sr. Teresa Okure of the Society of the Holy Child Jesus (SHCJ) pointed out gains that religious men and women have made in the fight against human trafficking and other social evils in Africa’s most populous country.
At the conference, Sr. Okure, a professor of Scripture and gender hermeneutics at CIWA, was speaking on behalf of the Africa Faith and Justice Network (AFJN), a global advocacy organization that stresses issues of human rights and social injustice in the context of the Catholic faith. AFJN, which is based in Washington has an active presence in Nigeria under the name Africa Faith and Justice Network, Nigeria (AFJN-N).
“The AFJN team has asked me to express their deep gratitude to you the Major Superiors of Women Religious Congregations in particular, for sending your Sisters to participate in workshops and advocacy events, particularly in Abuja, Edo State and Enugu State,” said Sr. Okure in her opening remarks at the conference that kicked off Monday, January 13.
She added in reference to the religious orders of women in her country, “Their advocacy activities have opened the eyes of many and produced concrete results that have led and are still leading to changes in the structures of injustice in these States.”
The religious sister highlighted the role of religious men and women in different congregations all over Nigeria who had joined the advocacy group that she said was working to combat all forms of social ills in Nigeria, particularly violence against women and children, contemporary slavery and abuse against women, children and vulnerable persons.
In Edo State, which has been christened the biggest site of the plague, Sr. Okure said activities of the religious had “led to the closure of a brothel used to traffic young girls, setting up of anti-trafficking task force in the State and also contributed immensely in the introduction and passing of anti-trafficking law in the State.”
The group has met with other advocacy groups in Nigeria to address the root causes of human trafficking in the country. Families of victims of the abuse were present at the meetings.
“Most of the people blamed it (human trafficking) on bad governance, unemployment and poor parenting,” reads in part a newsletter that was launched at the start of the conference. The newsletter details the work of AFJN-N in Edo and Enugu States of Nigeria where human trafficking is rife.
“One could see the anger on their faces. Some accused the government and said that it knows the perpetrators of human trafficking and (is) doing little or nothing to bring them to justice,” the newsletter has documented.
Additionally, the sisters were behind the summoning of “juju” makers by the Oba of Benin who were asked to desist from using their trade to intimidate young girls taken overseas by traffickers. Increase in cases of human trafficking has majorly been blamed on witchcraft.
In Enugu State, Sr. Okure noted that the women religious were working with collaboration with the Catholic Women Organisation, the Young Women Catholic Association and members of the National Agency for the Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons (NAPTIP) to address issues of selling babies and child abuse.
“In general, the Sisters continue to engage the systemic injustice in our country. They work to dismantle the structures of injustice that deprive God’s children of their dignity,” the Nigerian nun said.
Sr. Okure, the founding president of the Catholic Biblical Association of Nigeria (CABAN), however, noted that a lot was yet to be achieved by AFJC in the different African countries.
“This continental Conference of Men and Women Religious in Africa is like a giant in deep sleep. One can only imagine what this Conference would do if it wakes up to work collaboratively to reposition Africa by grounding it in Jesus, whose mission, the gospel alone has the power to lift up and sustain our beloved continent in the ways of justice, love and peace,” the religious Sister pointed out.
She added, “My personal appeal is that this Joint Conference would joyfully undertake viable common projects and rely on the liberating power of the gospel to make this happen.”
She commended the religious in Kenya for establishing a learning institution, which was set to become a full-fledged university.
“The men and women religious in Kenya, for instance, have established and operated Tangaza College, now heading to become a university. Many Nigerian Sisters and men religious have studied and are studying there, often with scholarships,” she said.
She added, “This joint Conference in Nigeria has far greater resources than that in Kenya. I pray that as a Joint Conference you may have the desire, will and zeal to evolve and operate sustainable common projects in service to the gospel.”
“The great success of the collaborative efforts of the Sisters in AFJN-N in a very short time is but a drop in the ocean to what this Conference can achieve together if it puts its mind to it,” Sr. Okure told the major superiors of different religious orders in Nigeria.