Blessing Okoedion rose from being a victim of sex trafficking to becoming an advocate in the fight against modern slavery.
Working as a cultural mediator for trafficking victims staying in a shelter run by a community of Ursuline sisters in Italy,
Blessing was on Thursday honoured by the U.S government as a 2018 Trafficking in Persons hero.
As Blessing Okoedion stepped onto the podium to receive the 2018 Trafficking in Persons Hero Award in the United States; not many would be able to comprehend the depth of anguish she once put up with as a victim of sex trafficking in Italy. Betrayed and tricked into prostituting on the streets of Italy, Blessing found grace under pressure by taking the initiative to report her traffickers to the police. She did not stop at fighting for her freedom; shebis also working to raise awareness about human trafficking in Italy.
A long, tortuous journey
Before landing in Italy in 2013, Okoedion managed a business in Edo State selling computer accessories and rechargeable lambs in Edo State. Unlike many victims of human trafficking from the region, Blessing was not tricked with the promise of coming to work as a house help or hair stylist. She was an ambitious young lady and traffickers lured her with the prospect of travelling to Spain for a Cisco (computers) certification programme.
“Nobody could tell me to come to Italy to work as a maid. I was educated; I had a business and I read newspapers and journals. I waited for the years it took to process my visa and I never took an oath before leaving Nigeria”, she said whilst arguing that anyone could become a victim of human trafficking regardless of their educational qualifications.
In a firm voice cementing her convictions about the pervasive nature of human trafficking, Okoedion further added that many Nigerian graduates and professionals are being trafficked to work as sex workers on the streets of Italy.
“There are so many people who are victims but are afraid to speak out. I meet so many Nigerian nurses who are being trafficked in Italy. Many Nigerian graduates are here on the streets forced into a tortuous life of suffering. They post good pictures on social media, but they are afraid to speak because of stigmatization and the fear that people in Nigeria won’t believe their story,” she added.
Okoedion found a voice after escaping from the traps of her traffickers by finding a police station to report her plight to three days after she was forced into sex slavery. During a ‘welcome’ orientation by other girls whom she met at her trafficker’s abode in Italy, she was told to accept her fate since reporting could land her in prison. Her desire for freedom was resolute and on the third day, she walked the path to a changing destiny.
She started walking the street by 4 am looking for a police station. Before her energy got sapped by the chilled weather, she met a Nigerian man begging on the streets of Italy. Narrating her plight to him, he tried to discourage her, saying going back to Nigeria was like going to hell.
“Make your money here, nobody cares about how you make your money,’” she was told but Okoedion was resolute. Afraid of being raided by Italian police officers for lack of residency papers, the man only pointed to the police station but Okoedion returned shortly to fetch him to accompany her since she didn’t speak Italian.
At this stage, things happened like a dream; the police started an investigation into the case and she regained her freedom.
Asked what buoyed her courage to report her traffickers, she said: “I reported immediately because I believe everyone has a right to freedom”. Now that she is getting her life on track, she believes empowering victims to report traffickers is a vital means of curtailing the inhuman trade.
“In Italy, it’s an 11 years sentence for an offender. That in itself is enough to caution traffickers”, she said.
“I always encourage girls to report traffickers to the police. I made them realise that they are not in Nigeria, so their background does not matter. If anyone wants to go back home to threaten their parents, NAPTIP can handle that. We have to encourage them that they are not alone because many of them are ignorant. They can still be protected while they report their traffickers,” she further added.
In an encounter with a foreign press, Okoedion hinted how she was trafficked by a Christian woman. Asked to give more details on what transpired, she told The Nation she would rather choose to focus on her energy on combating trafficking, since everybody has a right to freedom.
Ms. Okoedion presently partners with the Catholic Church working with women religious groups to help victims of human trafficking get their lives back on track. She also visits Nigeria to educate vulnerable women and girls to help them detect traffickers’ fraudulent recruitment and employment tactics, including false promises of work and a better life in large cities and other countries. She also had an encounter with the Pope in Rome, informing him that she was troubled that many clients of prostitutes on the streets of Rome were Catholic.
As Nigeria’s booming youth population continue to emigrate to other parts of the world in search of greener pastures, Okoedion is quick to dissuade young people fleeing the country in search of better prospects in Europe and the Middle East.
“I rescued a girl who was into runs (sex works) in Nigeria and when she came to Italy, she discovered that Nigeria was heaven compared to the plight she suffered. The climate in Europe is different and the traffickers live on these girls, pushing them into the streets to sleep with men even in the cold weather.
“I see adverts online where people advertise jobs in foreign countries but it’s a lie. Victims are often taken to another country and some have their organs extracted. There are some people who did not take oaths in Nigeria, but they were forced into it here,” she lamented.
Although Okoedion has a feisty tone to her voice when she speaks on trafficking, she gets to a breaking point whenever she remembers the under aged girls she encountered on the streets of Italy, some forced into prostitution by close relatives. Other heart -rending tales involve men who forced their wives into prostitution.
“There was a Bini girl who has two children and her husband brought her to Italy to work as a prostitute. He said she had to do it because they have bills to pay but he commanded her never to have sex with black men.
“Is it the underage girls- the 13-year-old who work on the street and experience their first menstrual period in Italy? Some of them can’t even speak pidgin. They take all the money they make to their madams. Their traffickers are like cultists and they hold them in bondage. Many girls have lost their wombs,” she spoke holding back tears.
With Nigeria being the top supplier of sex trafficking victims to European countries, there are indications that the battle against human trafficking is far from being won. Okoedion believes the craze for materialism in Nigeria is one of the factors fuelling human trafficking. She also believes that government needs to adequately equip NAPTIP to be able to carry out its activities effectively. Training law enforcement arms would also go a long way in stemming the time, she asserted.
“It would interest you to know that in Nigeria, traffickers use the police to threaten victims. I experience such in Benin where a police officer questioned a girl on why she chose to report her trafficker to the police in Italy, asking if she wanted to die in poverty”.
As a woman who epitomizes courage, it’s not surprising that Okoedion who recently authored a book, titled “The Courage of Freedom,” was presented with the 2018 Trafficking in Persons Hero Award by the U.S Secretary of State, Michael R. Pompeo. The award is given to men and women who made lasting impact on the fight against modern slavery.
Human trafficking is a global phenomenon with the United Nations estimating that at least 40 million people are trapped in slavery worldwide. With more courageous fellows like Okoedion, rising from being victims to freedom fighters, there appears to be hope that the scourge would be eradicated in the course of time. – The Nation.