Slavery's tight grip on Nigerian migrant women takes many forms: threats of violence; tens of thousands euros in debt to cover the cost of the journey; desperation.

As African migrants with little education or job training, they have few alternatives.

But there's a stronger form of bondage than the debt or even the violence. It's a "juju oath" taken back in Nigeria. Many women are terrified of breaking it. 

Take Peace, for example: Before the 17-year-old left her village, crossed Libya and climbed aboard a dinghy to cross the sea to Europe, she swore an oath to her trafficker to repay her debt. She took the juju, she says, which works like dark magic. A spell was cast on her and if she didn't fulfill her obligations, demonic spirits would haunt her daily and eventually drive her mad.

“The juju is still working,” Peace says. “There are spirits everywhere.”

Worldwide, hundreds of millions of dollars are being raised to combat trafficking, especially in the US. In December 2016, the End Modern Slavery Initiative was signed into law by President Barack Obama, which pledged upwards of $250 million to anti-trafficking efforts.

But for women like Peace, along with thousands of Nigerian teenagers in Sicily and elsewhere, their struggle to break out of sexual slavery is fervently psychological. The juju oath reflects a set of spiritual beliefs — African witchcraft — that dates back to their ancestors. She couldn't break free from trafficking without a way to address its intense hold on her psyche.

The juju oath represents the kind of challenge that anti-trafficking efforts have yet to acknowledge, let alone resolve. The challenge is that chains of modern day sexual slavery are so often psychological, and take the form of narratives that control women's very sense of identity and sense of self — their relationship with their family, with their god and with their own understanding of their value. 

Even if a young woman ends up in a safe or protected situation in Europe, she believes the juju oath will haunt her family in Nigeria and bring them bad luck. It is often for this reason that young women do not take advantage of the offer of protection under Article 18 of Italy’s Consolidated Immigration Act, by which a woman is offered a temporary residence permit if she turns in the person controlling her. 

Anti-trafficking leaders know better than to challenge the girls on whether the juju oath exists — they are careful not to challenge the girls beliefs. They treat it delicately, although many are uncertain about how to address it at all. 

Rosa Lo Faro, a lawyer in Catania who has been working on the issue of Nigerian trafficking for over a decade, argues that, from a legal and more general standpoint, it is important for Italians (judges, lawyers, and society at large) to understand the impact of psychological forces like the juju on the women she defends. She talks about one woman awaiting trial who had “mental disturbances” that were so grave the woman “couldn’t understand anything, and was incapable of self-awareness or self-control.” 

Lo Faro and Calogero Ferrara, a lawyer and trafficking expert in Palermo, both agree that there is much more understanding about these rites by Italian judges than there used to be, though the Italian legal code still depends on proof of danger or violence.

Fear of the consequences of breaking the oath, emphasized Ferrara, remains the single greatest obstacle to persuading the women to turn in their “bosses.”

That fear continues, Peace says, even today. She's off the streets and setting up her life, taking classes in Italian, sewing and cooking. She participates in a gospel choir, has recently been offered a job taking care of an elderly woman at night, and participates actively in her Nigerian church community. But the fear remains.

How Peace escaped her juju oath is complicated. She says her belief in a Christian God helps. Peace credits her relatively easy journey through Libya to the protection of God. Unlike many women, she was not raped or hurt violently; her boat didn't sink and she didn't drown.  

Similarly, another young Nigerian woman, Favor says her faith saved her. Two women in her same dinghy died in the Mediterranean on the passage from the Libyan coast to the rescue ship. She believes she herself was saved because she spent the whole trip with her head bowed, praying to God.

Some Nigerian women talk about a priestess who lives nearby and claims to be able to break the juju oath. Peace believes seeing such a woman would be “fighting darkness with darkness,” and chooses to pray to a Christian God instead. But even still, she struggles with fears that the juju oath haunts her. Today, Peace is trying to rebuild her life, which involves praying each day and telling God she denounces the juju oath she made five years ago, when she was still in Nigeria.

Although she has broken the “covenant,” Peace, nonetheless refuses to turn anyone in, terrified for her family in Nigeria, and perhaps for her own sanity. 

Evidence of the power of witchcraft is all around her, she says. She gives the example of a friend of hers, a young woman who persuaded a group of girls to turn in their traffickers. Now she acts crazy and aggressive, even though she isn’t taking drugs.

When I pressed Peace on this oath, she responded to my questions by saying:  “Our thinking is different from the whites. Religion, beliefs, what is real and not real. There are things we think are real in Nigeria that to the whites are nonsense.”

A few days a week, in cities around Italy, a group of religious and lay volunteers called Unità di Strada or “Street Unity” drives to the parts of town where the Nigerian women are working. They deliver snacks and water; they chat, pray, and sing. Palermo’s Street Unity began about eight years ago, started by an elderly nun from Verona named Sister Valeria Gandini, with 30 years of experience in Africa and Italy.

The mission is a modest, quiet one, determined to bring some company, hope, and friendship to the girls. Much of the activity depends on the praying and singing during the visits. Sister Valeria, who spent decades in Africa and speaks English with the young women, invites one of the girls standing around her to begin praying.

Sometimes the girls are shy, they tease each other to decide who will pray. But once the prayer starts, a different energy takes over.

Father we are here today to say thank you, you are so marvelous, you are so wonderful. Father thank you for keeping us through these days, Oh Lord. Father thank you for protecting us, thank you for guiding us. Father may you continue to guide and protect us in the Mighty name of Jesus Christ [Amen]. Father make us to dwell in your Word, in the name of Jesus [Amen]. Father teach us to live in your Word so that we can abide in your Word in the name of Jesus [Amen].

The improvised prayers go something like this, different each time, moving rapidly, emphasizing the words “Lord” and “Jesus Christ.”

They can last many minutes, and the young woman closes her eyes as she speaks. The “Amens” are delivered by the rest of the group. Sometimes the girls ask for help obtaining their documents; often they ask for help getting off the street, out of work that is killing their bodies. Sister Valeria observes that after the prayer, the women seem calmer, as though they needed to get something out. She and Friar Loris, a Franciscan priest who often accompanies her, believe that these moments are incredibly important.

“It is one of the most beautiful moments they have. [...] On the street, they’ve come to understand that they are in a situation of slavery; that they are living in fear. They trust us; they know we are people of God. And consequently, they pray with all their hearts,” said Friar Loris.

When Peace was making her decision to leave the street, even for months after that, she would get nightmares about what her old “boss” might do. At that moment, she would pray, a kind of prayer she calls a “battle prayer.” It’s aggressive, because you are angry and hungry, she explained, adding that you are telling someone, “next time, don’t even try it.”

After those prayers, she relaxes.

Sundays are the only day of the week in which you might not find the young women standing in their usual places on the street. Most of them will be in church, any one of a number of Nigerian congregations.

Nigerian pastors throughout Italy have faced investigations into their collusion with madams. Ferrara, the Palermo prosecutor and trafficking expert, said investigations of Nigerian pastors for their affiliations with organized crime are currently under way in Palermo.

Nonetheless, churches are sometimes visible signs of strength and community. In one community, congregation members gather outside of the weekly Sunday services. They are a small group, trying to organize themselves to come up with projects that could provide work and income to their community that does not involved relying on Italians.

Lack of job opportunities, in addition to the strong cultural and spiritual or psychological bonds, is one of the principle reasons women and girls are unable to leave the street. Unemployment in Sicily is high even among EU citizens: Eurostat reports 21 percent general unemployment in 2015, rising to 55 percent for youths aged 15-24.

Many jobs require documents, which can take years to get, and which are temporary and must be renewed. If an employer doesn’t require a document, it may be that he or she will then take advantage of the employee, asking for long hours in return for little pay. Further, the available jobs for these women fall under what researchers Jeffrey Cole and Sally Booth call “dirty work”: Aside from prostitution, available jobs include cleaning, domestic care of children or the elderly, or work in the fields.

In the church meeting, different ideas are brought up. Peace’s dream is to open a grocery store. The group asks Friar Loris if he could help them procure sewing machines so that they could make clothes to sell, to Europeans and Africans alike.

In a different space a few blocks away, during a Sunday church service, the charismatic young pastor calls up four young women to stand before him.

The service has already lasted hours, a mix of praying, singing, and dancing. The pastor’s wife delivered a long sermon, and then the pastor got up. He called out different members of the church, praising them for helping pay the rent of the church, or sponsoring a prayer pamphlet with a generous financial contribution.

The women before him are young — I met one of them at the port, when she’d just gotten off the boat, and seen her again in the camp she was placed in. He tells the congregation that there seems to be a freeze on migrants receiving their documents.

Loudly and powerfully, he declares that God will recommence the documentation process, and that these four young women will be the first to receive them. The group responds with choruses of “Amens.” As he speaks to her, the girl nearest to me stumbles, and begins to faint; another woman rushes to catch her so she doesn’t fall.

Maggie Neil is a writer and researcher based in Italy, focusing on trafficking and migration thanks to a Fulbright research grant. She reported this story with the assistance of The Fuller Project for International Reporting.

This is our part of a deep look by Across Women's Lives at sex trafficking around the world. From India to Italy, Uganda to the UK, we'll look at the toll that being sex trafficked takes and some of the strategies taken by women to escape. Check back from now through Friday for more of our coverage of the journey out of trafficking. Following along at

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