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With prayer and gifts, Nigerian nuns work to rescue women from sex trade

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ONITSHA, Nigeria — On a sunny afternoon, Sister Dorothy Okoli drove an unmarked Toyota Sienna from her convent to a hotel where young girls are trapped in prostitution.

En route, she stopped at a grocery store to shop for food items and provisions. It's a duty she said she is called to do.

"Solving a problem of this nature requires a lot of dedication; you don't just wake up one morning and say that you are going into a hotel to transform the lives of young girls trapped in the business of prostitution," Sister Okoli said. "I often visit them with gift items and cash gifts, and this endeared me to them (so) that they sometimes refuse to let me go."

Sister Okoli is superior general of the Missionary Sisters of St John Paul II of Mary, a women's religious institute in Anambra state. In July, her congregation established the Save Young Girls Motherhood Foundation; she and three other nuns are working to rehabilitate commercial sex workers.

"Before I started, I didn't know that I would have to deal with such a huge number of girls needing help, I thought we'd meet a few of them. But when we started, surprisingly, we found out that there are many of them with needs beyond our capability; we found out that it's not something we can do alone, that we need the support of the government and individuals, including churches," she said.

With backgrounds in guidance and counseling, economics and education, Sister Okoli said she takes courage through prayer. She said she prays before visiting any of the brothels.

Many of the young sex workers are predisposed to high incidence of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, and other life-threatening diseases. Nigeria's HIV prevalence among sex workers is estimated to be as high as 27.4 percent among brothel-based female sex workers and 21.1 percent among those who do not work in brothels.

Nigerian law does not legalize commercial sex work, and the profession is viewed as exploitative and a form of violence against women. The country's criminal system prohibits national and transnational trafficking of women for commercial sex or forced labor, and Nigeria signed the U.N. Convention against Transnational Organized Crime.

In southern Nigeria where Sister Okoli works, underage prostitution, the activities of pimps and the operation or ownership of brothels are illegal, but the trade still thrives.

Benita Ekwe, 25, started working in a brothel to provide financial aid to her family after her mother lost her job in 2017, just one year after her father died.

She makes between $5 and $48 a day and sends some home for her siblings' food and schooling, but fears she might lose her life if she does not stop.

"I am not comfortable doing this job, it's so risky," she said. "It's something I want to do for a while; I hope to quit as soon as I realize the amount of money that I need to set up something for myself and my siblings."

Ekwe had to drop out of school because of lack of money, and she wants her siblings to have "that education that I couldn't get. Being the first child and eldest of five younger ones, I took it as my responsibility to see them through school."

"I intend to open a small food stall for my mum so she can have something to sustain my family, so when I quit this job, my family will have something to fall back on."

Benita and her friends pay the hotel management $15 to secure their rooms where the men meet them. On days when they do not make that much money, they must withdraw from their bank accounts to pay "rent."

Sister Okoli said such exploitation mirrors the mistreatment of those caught in the web of prostitution.

"Most of them stay in rooms that are not habitable just to meet living costs," she said, and they are mistreated by their male clients.

"Benita is one of the girls that are still receiving counseling and rehabilitation, and her intervention would be a gradual process until completion," Sister Okoli said.

Since July, the nuns have interacted with more than 100 commercial sex workers and have been able to establish two of the girls in the tailoring business, with housing, too.

Sister Okoli said getting the girls to agree to retire from the trade is a gradual process that requires funds to get them established immediately when their rehabilitation is complete.

"It's one of the challenges slowing down what we are doing here," she said.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2021