Friday, May 20, 2005

Faith in the power of voodoo — sometimes called juju — is deeply ingrained in West African culture. It's a direct link to ancient ancestor-based beliefs that include a wide variety of spirits and other supernatural entities, and it forms the base for rituals brought to the Caribbean and elsewhere. In West Africa, voodoo priests still are often used to seal financial transactions or root out suspected thieves — often with a threat of a deadly curse for the wrongdoer.

Prostitution gangs parlay this fear to their advantage, Babandede said. Thousands of women and girls seeking transport to Europe — sometimes with false promises of legal work — undergo voodoo rituals that can involve drinking blood from cuts and taking nail and hair clippings as totems.

"They are told that fleeing the traffickers will bring death to them or their family," said Babandede, who addressed a recent human trafficking conference in Turin, Italy, one of the hubs for Nigerian-based prostitution networks. "This is a heavy power over these women."

It is also something difficult for most authorities to comprehend.

The international prostitution trade in Europe is mostly built upon other methods of bondage: holding women in prison-like conditions or setting impossibly high repayment sums in exchange for their passports and IDs. For some women who manage to escape, the ordeal is finally over.

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