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Yorkshire to di world! Part 2 - black women forced into sex

CRISIS: Suspected prostitutes working in Italy (image credit: Getty)

FOLLOWING HER AUGUST interview with 'The Voice' after working in Italy to support women in business, global enterprise consultant and Yorkshire Writers Lunch blogger Yvonne Witter offers more perspective on her experience as a travelling lone professional.

During her latest discussion with The Voice, Witter focuses on one recurring aspect of her trip - the sexual exploitation and trafficking of African women in Italy and the parallels with recent police investigations in the north of England; which uncovered several sex abuse rings.

According to a study by Maggie Neil, a Brit researcher based in Italy, Nigerian women in particular have been trafficked into Europe for sex work for the past 30 years at least, however there has been a worrying upward spike in these statistics of late. In 2014, the numbers of Nigerian women in Italy who were suffering this kind of exploitation grew to nearly 1,500. The following year, it increased again to 5,600. In 2016, at least 11,009 Nigerian women and girls arrived on Italian shores, charged with ‘earning their keep’ or ‘paying back’ their traffickers, forced to do so in the most sinister of ways.

SISTERLY SUPPORT: Yvonne Witter, business consultant and Yorkshire Writers Lunch-er (centre) with Donne di Benin City Women’s Drop-In Project in Italy, speaking with members of the project who have been trafficked from Africa to Italy for sex work (image credit: Yvonne Witter)

In August 2017, Northumbria Police revealed that there were at least 700 girls or women who were victims of sexual exploitation. Local officers shared the concerns of black and minority ethnic communities in Newcastle, who had asked the police to conduct information sessions on how to keep young people safe.

Newcastle City Council supported the local force in cracking down on abusers by allocating resources and helping to set-up a telephone helpline for anyone concerned that someone was falling prey to traffickers or being groomed. The council’s chief executive Pat Ritchie told The Independent newspaper:

“We have to continue to support victims and make it clear that this sort of exploitative behaviour and awful crimes are not acceptable in our city.”

Witter, who spent two months in Italy earlier this year, during “a searing heatwave called Lucifer”, worked closely with the Donne di Benin City Women’s Drop-in Project who offer advice, support and a skills exchange to African women in Palermo who have arrived from Benin City in west Africa via human trafficking and enforced labour.

Witter illustrates the severity of these women’s daily lives in Italy:

CITY NIGHTS: An evening out in Palermo to celebrate the culture of migrants who have settled in Italy (image credit: Yvonne Witter)

“They fill the brothels here, creating wealth for those that benefit from human exploitation of this kind.

“Once they arrive by boat, they honour their pledges, made back home, often shrouded in voodoo rituals, to escape from the migrant camps, which are mostly little more than holding pens anyway, and into the clutches of the ‘traders’. They then meet a fate, which neither they nor their mothers who sold them, could have imagined.

“I am told that the madams of these brothels are Nigerian women too, obviously working for higher powers.

“I had picked-up information from various sources and was aware that women were trafficked from various places onto prostitution. I had absolutely no idea that black women had any particular prominence in this particular exploitation.

“As a black woman I found it difficult to feel relaxed. I started wondering if everyone thinks that I too am a migrant or a prostitute.

“Maybe I internalised the experiences of these women who looked like me too much, but somewhere deep inside myself, I felt unsafe.”

Following the investigation and arrest of at least 18 perpetrators in Newcastle, MP Chi Onwurah told The Chronicle:

“I think this has brought shame on Newcastle that this could happen to girls. We all have questions to answer - everyone could have done more.

“We need to close the gap so there aren’t vulnerable girls and women that aren’t on anyone’s radar. That’s what safeguarding is about and that absolutely failed these young women and girls. We have absolutely got to make sure this doesn’t happen again. We have failed these girls and women.”

In light of the disturbing pattern of abuse, Witter has joined Onwurah, the women of Donne di Benin City Women’s Drop-In Project and the UK-based Ubele Initiative in the fight to stop the disturbing trend in such abuse:

“I am now researching trafficking for sex in the UK, because I am becoming aware that what I experienced or heard about in Palermo, Sicily is not unique”, says Witter.

“I am grateful to be able to support by setting up a Just Giving campaign to raise funds to buy equipment to enable new skills so that women who escape the sex industry are able to work and support themselves. They need funds to pay legal fees. Some basic needs like toiletries and sanitary protection is required for women in the migrant camps.

“Donne di Benin City women do not have a permanent meeting space.

“Women need accommodation. The long term aim of the organisation is to have a place of shelter and security where vulnerable women can find respite and care.”


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