By Charles Igwe
Nigeria has been identified as the largest source of trafficked girls and women to Europe and Asia for sexual exploitation within Africa. The issue has drawn attention from UN agencies, and while the Nigerian government has taken steps to combat human trafficking, the problem persists due to complex factors like poverty and criminality.
For those rescued or forced to return to Nigeria by European governments or NGOs, the future often appears bleak as they face rejection, stigma, unemployment, and lack of access to medical care upon returning to their communities. Consequently, some of them end up being re-trafficked multiple times.
In the midst of these challenges, Sr. Philomena Okwu, a Nigerian religious sister of the Daughters of Charity, is leading a team of sisters from various Nigerian religious congregations under the Nigeria Conference of Women Religious (NCWR) umbrella. Together, they operate the Committee for The Support of the Dignity of Women (COSUDOW), which offers shelter and a rehabilitation center in Benin City, Edo State.
COSUDOW was established in 1999 by the national association of religious women to address social issues affecting women and children. In 2000, a group from NCWR visited Italy at the invitation of the Union of Major Superiors of Italy (USMI) and witnessed the dire situation of young Nigerian women on the streets of Italy. This experience prompted COSUDOW to expand its activities to include rehabilitation and reintegration efforts for women and girls who are returnees from trafficking.
Most of the girls and women arriving at the shelter and center of COSUDOW are traumatized and in dire condition. Sr. Okwu and her team provide comprehensive support, including psychological, spiritual, and pastoral counseling, aiming to help them rebuild their self-esteem and confidence. The beneficiaries are also encouraged to acquire skills for independent living, reducing their vulnerability to re-trafficking.
Sr. Okwu praised the collaborative efforts of government agencies, NGOs, and faith-based organizations, especially CARITAS Nigeria and the Catholic Bishops Conference of Nigeria, which actively speak out against human trafficking. She emphasized that human trafficking is a crime against humanity that violates individuals’ rights and dignity, and the Church has a vital role in protecting and upholding human dignity and rights.
The work of Sr. Philomena Okwu and the COSUDOW project is making a significant impact in rehabilitating and reintegrating women affected by human trafficking, providing them with hope and a chance for a better future. The dedication of these Nigerian Sisters has become an inspiring example of how compassion and collaboration can combat the heinous crime of human trafficking and support those in need.