Why I Speak Out To Help Sex Trafficking Victims — And How You Can Too

Photo: Real Women Real Stories
Why I Speak Out To Help Sex Trafficking Victims — And How You Can Too

And how you can too.

By R. Evon Idahosa 

Growing up as a young child in Nigeria, my mother would often have us draw our growing feet onto pieces of paper just before she was traveling to the U.S. or to England. Once she arrived, she would awkwardly take the drawings of our feet to a shoe store and use them to estimate our sizes to buy us shoes. When she returned with our new shoes, we were overjoyed, regardless of whether the shoes were too big, just the right fit or even a little too small. 

There were times when my younger sister’s shoes wouldn’t fit because they were too small. Because my feet were bigger than hers, I would wear her shoes for a day or two, stretching them out, so that they created more space for her feet. I did this for many years until we finally began accompanying our Mum overseas.

By that point, it was too late. I still have one pinky toe that never fully recovered.

But yes, I believe in stretching tight shoes and I have felt compelled to do so ever since the first time I used my big feet to stretch those shoes for my little sister. Every broken pair I get to wear is an honor and certainly my life’s greatest privilege.

Stretching tight shoes also forges a path towards my own healing and liberation, because when I was 17, I was physically and almost sexually assaulted.  

And so, I too know what it feels like to be squeezed into a tight space and to have my dignity and power almost stripped from me.

The healing of another woman is my healing. Her liberation is my liberation.

Creating space for others, particularly marginalized women and girls whose voices have been muted by sex trafficking, exploitation, and assault, became a consistent theme in my life.

It is the impetus for why I do what I do and for how I move through the world.

In fact, it is what compelled me to leave a lucrative partnership at a well-regarded New York law firm to found Pathfinders Justice Initiative, an international nonprofit/non-governmental organization. Our mission is to aggressively and unapologetically eradicate sex trafficking and exploitation in the developing world, particularly in my home country of Nigeria and my home state of Edo, an internationally recognized hub of sex trafficking.

There are three basic paths we take on our walks intended to stretch the space available for the voices of those who have no room to speak for themselves:

1. We stretch tight shoes through our advocacy.

It is by effecting policy and amplifying the voices of women and girls who are not in a position to do so on their own. It is precisely why I am a #BringBackOurGirls activist.

More than three years after their violent abduction, 113 Nigerian schoolgirls still remain in the hands of Boko Haram, the deadly terror group whose members mercilessly force grown men to swallow bullets for breakfast and believe that women should be consumed as commodities, not educated. No girl, simply because she is poor and without access to support, should ever have to choose between her life and her education.

No woman should ever be raped into motherhood, as some of the Chibok Girls have been, or be forced to nurse an innocent child whose loving eyes remind her of hate.

2. We make room for women and girls through rehabilitation via our PATH (Personalized Action to Healing) PLANS for young women like Faith.

Faith was 31 years old when she died in 2016. She grew up in Benin City, my home town in Nigeria, where 1 in every 3 young women has been recruited into sex trafficking and from where over 90% of the women who are trafficked into Europe hail.

Because she was poor, uneducated and therefore had little to no economic opportunities, she volunteered, like over 95% of the women we partner with, to be trafficked overseas.  

It was in Libya that she was initially raped on multiple occasions and sold for the first time. The rapes resulted in a pregnancy, and because she was unable to feed her young daughter, she was trafficked to Moscow. In Moscow, she was forced to have sex with anywhere between 10-15 men a day, every day, until she developed kidney infections.

Because her traffickers were unwilling to afford her the dignity to obtain basic antibiotics, the repeated infections progressed to kidney disease. Close to death, she was discarded on the streets of Moscow. It was there that a Good Samaritan found her and contacted one of our Russian partners. Alone and afraid, Faith's one wish was to return to Nigeria to be able to see her daughter again.

We worked with several of our partners in Moscow and Faith was reunited with her daughter in Nigeria in November 2015. It was our intention to provide her with six weeks of dialysis treatments while we desperately endeavored to fundraise the $35,000 that she needed to secure a kidney transplant. Those six weeks churned into six months and notwithstanding our best, yet unsuccessful efforts, Faith passed away in September 2016.

3. We stretch tight shoes is via our #Not4Sale and #SheSaidNo prevention campaigns.

These focus on providing vocational skills training, shelter, education scholarships and start-up business funding and training for vulnerable women and girls. With a partner, we are currently training about 100 women every year in Nigeria.

Frederick Douglass once said that power concedes nothing without demand.   

The world is the way it is and women and girls are treated the way they are because not enough of us have committed to taking a stand against injustice and violence against women.

As you read this today, I invite you to join me in stretching tight shoes.

No one should be squeezed into a space that is too small to allow for respect and flourishing. Because you see, we have a shared humanity that dictates that we create space for all women and girls to have a seat at the table and to live a life that is dignified and affirmed. The reality is that what happens in Africa does not stay in Africa.

What happens to Yazidi women in Iraq will not stay in Iraq. In fact, the rape of a woman in Nigeria, in the Sudan, in India, is the rape of a world citizen to whom we are all obligated. We all have a collective responsibility to act and demand the world that we want because we are each our own.

In the time it has taken you to read this essay, 28 child brides were forcefully married, 4 women were battered, 2 children were sold into slavery and at least one woman was raped.

Now that you know, what are you going to do about it?

Click here to find out more about how you can help us amplify women’s voices.