Human Trafficking and Gender Essentialism in Nigeria

How does gender essentialism affect the lives of local Nigerian girls and lead to an increase in trafficking in persons?

What can we, as a society, do to help?


Living in Nigeria, I see examples of gender inequality all around me. Traditional gender views prevail, and this is reflected around the globe, not just in the Global South. Viewing women as they’re viewed in Nigeria limits their economic and educational opportunities and forces them to turn to other means of providing for their families. This causes local Nigerian women to be extremely vulnerable and at risk of getting caught into the deadly system of human trafficking. Traffickers target these women and lure them in by offering them a job opportunity and tricking them into thinking they won’t have much debt and the work won’t be that bad. In reality, these women are either forced into prostitution or other labours with very little income and are told they can’t leave until they can pay off a huge debt to the traffickers. If these women eventually manage to escape or are rescued, it’s very rare they’ll be able to return to the life they once had. It’s a vicious cycle and women often cannot escape once they’ve started. The way Nigeria treat and value women is the root of this problem and the main reason that little improvement is occurring in the area of anti-human trafficking.

My project is all about raising awareness of this issue. Nigeria is a hub for human trafficking and yet, most of the world doesn’t even know about what goes on. By raising awareness it’ll encourage more nations to help reduce trafficking and try to solve the issue. As mentioned above, gender inequality and human trafficking go hand in hand. By working towards Gender Equality, Sustainable Development Goal 5, human trafficking in Nigeria will be hugely affected. If the nation starts seeing the value in its women and begins recognising sexist behaviour and language, people involved in human trafficking or those indirectly supporting it will begin to see the crime in the business. Additionally, Sustainable Development Goal 8, Decent Work and Economic Growth directly connects to human trafficking. Providing the population of Nigeria, including its women, with reliable jobs means they’ll be able to provide for themselves and their families without depending on jobs offered by traffickers. By implementing these goals, and raising awareness about trafficking, I believe the number of trafficking victims will decrease significantly over time.

To begin, here are some Basic Gender Theories to Familiarise yourself with…

Gender Essentialism: A gender theory that men and women have set traits, abilities, and personas based on their biological sex. For example, men are expected to be sexually driven, competitive, irrationally violent. Women are expected to be nurturing, non-competitive, polite, emotional.

Hegemonic Masculinity: the theory that men are more dominant than women and pursue these more “masculine” interests such as sports, violent actions, and sexualising women.

So what do you know about Human Trafficking?

Feel free to test your current knowledge of human trafficking to find out how much you really know using this short quiz. Hopefully, you’ll be able to teach yourself something new, too!


Now that you've learnt about a few of the basic facts, let's dig deeper...


Human trafficking affects young Nigerian women heavily as they’re trafficked to other African countries, Europe, or in the Middle East (“Trafficking in Persons…”). The way human trafficking often works is traffickers will target vulnerable people- those who don’t have a stable job, have low income, would generally give up a lot for the chance at a better life- and trick them into trafficking. Either trafficking victims will be told they’re going for a hairdressing job in Europe, and be completely lied to, or they’ll know they’re going into trafficking but they’re unaware of the extent at which it is. Victims may be okay with the hardships of trafficking because they want to get to Europe, but they’ll misunderstand that the prostitution isn’t optional and they’re going to be in debt for an impossible amount of time (Pearson). Once these victims, usually young women, are trapped, their passports, belongings, and personal information are taken and they’re told they owe obscenely large amounts of money that they’re going to have to work off (“Joy Ngozi”). There’s a heavy influence of juju in this process too. Victims may be taken to witch doctors and are told they’ll die or their family will be cursed if they try to escape or break their promises (Nwogu). Once someone is caught in human trafficking it can be difficult to escape simply because they have no way home and owe a huge debt to their traffickers, however, the problem stretches even further than that. Families sometimes won’t accept their daughters back into their village after they’re rescued from being trafficked Either the families claim their daughters have sinned while being in prostitution or because, even though they’re living a horrible life, they’re still providing for their families (Pearson). It truly is a deadly trap that lures in young women, and even children, all around West Africa and primarily in Nigeria.


Human trafficking occurs with males, females, and children. However, around 71% of all trafficking victims are women and girls. Men are more often forced into exploitative labour, while women are usually forced into marriage or various forms of sex slavery (“Report: Majority of Trafficking…”). There is a direct correlation with trafficking in persons and gender inequalities. Gender Essentialism is predominately seen in the Global South, less economically developed countries, like Nigeria, and it really affects how women see themselves in society and means that, when coming from a developing community, there aren’t many economic opportunities available to them (Pearson). Hegemonic Masculinities has a role in Human Trafficking too. According to the hegemonic perspective, men are emotionless, violent, and most importantly heavily sexualise women. Sexual exploitation can only exist if there’s a demand for it and, in Europe, sexual services are almost all consumed by men and provided by women (Voronova and Radjenovic). This feeds the trafficking industry and gives traffickers the profit they need to continue their vile work.

These two gender theories of Hegemonic Masculinity and Gender Essentialism additionally mean that women aren’t seen as capable of doing the same work as men in Nigeria. This leads to a huge lack of economic opportunity for women in Nigeria (Pearson) that leads to them seeking life elsewhere and migrating out of Nigeria to find these opportunities (Nwogu). If women had equal opportunity in Nigeria to make a living and provide for their families as men do, then they wouldn’t feel the need to migrate and risk getting caught in trafficking. The moment Nigerian society begin to see women’s worth as much as they see men’s, trafficking and sexual exploitation within Nigeria will decrease significantly.


There are push and pull factors when it comes to Human Trafficking in Nigeria. Push factors would be things like, “poverty, unemployment, lack of social security, gender inequalities, conflicts and violence,” while pull factors include, “promises of steady employment, better living conditions and demand for cheap unskilled labour as well as for sexual services” (Voronova and Radjenovic). A way to reduce this problem at the source would be to reduce these push factors and therefore limit the need for the pull factors. If the money coming from less developed countries actually went into reducing problems like human trafficking, and not just into the pockets of developed countries, the number of victims would surely decrease significantly. Another way the Global North can help is to educate and raise awareness about where some women involved in sex services come from. Around 10,000 prostitutes in Italy have been trafficked from Nigeria (Nwogu). If the Western population knew this, many of them would realise that they may be indirectly funding the trafficking and exploitation of women. Other ways to reduce trafficking are to ensure victims of trafficking are receiving humane and empathetic treatment when rescued, which would mean women wouldn’t feel the need to go right back into trafficking. The Nigerian population should receive information on their rights and how to seek help. And, more generally, law enforcement should become more informed about traffickers and how to officially run a trafficking investigation (Nwogu) (Pearson). When people begin to learn and acknowledge the corruption and sexual exploitation within Human Trafficking, and how common it is in Nigeria, hopefully, the numbers of victims will drop.

This is the story of Gift Jonathan, a woman who was rescued from human trafficking and began a new life working as a chef. To hear more stories from women like her who have created a life for themselves in Nigeria, visit this website.


"CUPCAKES ARE FOR SALE, WOMEN ARE NOT" anti-human trafficking awareness bake sale

Since awareness about Human Trafficking is extremely low, I helped organise a bake sale in order to raise awareness in my school community. We called it "Cupcakes are for sale, women are not." This partly originates from the interesting fact that in Lagos, Nigeria people label their houses as "Not for Sale." Since Nigerians go to efforts to label their property as such, maybe people should be reminded that women aren't for sale either. One of the clubs I'm in involved in, Protect the Child (a club all about giving back and providing service for our local community), worked with me on this project. Several people from the club helped with this small project. About 6 people baked cupcakes and brownies, 10 or so people volunteered to sell the goods, and everyone helped make posters and tell people about it via social media. The bake sale allowed customers to decorate their own cake or brownie and choose from an array of statistics and quotes to add to the top of their decorated treat. This meant we were both feeding and educating the school community. The idea of this is to generally get people talking about Human Trafficking in Nigeria and encourage students to think about what they can do to help. Overall, the bake sale was extremely successful seen as we got people talking about Human Trafficking, were genuinely moved by the shocking facts and statistics on the baked goods, and we raised a total of ₦90,000 (approx. $250) all of which will be going towards Anti-Human Trafficking causes in Nigeria.

Bakesales like the one I organized in my community as so easy to pursue, and they can be extremely successful. Even in my school, which is relatively small, my friends and I managed to raise a lot of money and introduce the Human Trafficking issue. I strongly encourage everyone to try to raise awareness and help in a simple way in their communities, you'll be amazed by how much of an impact you can actually have.


With all this being said, it's easy to lose hope in a solution. How can one even begin to face this immense issue? I interviewed Simon Pearson, the Project Manager in the Modern Slavery unit of the British Home Office in Lagos, Nigeria, about human trafficking in Nigeria and we discussed how culture, gender, and tradition can affect the growing problem. This short video, however, is just a snippet of our conversation. He offers some hope for the decrease in human trafficking and states what governments around the world, as well as what young advocates, like me, can do to help fight human trafficking.

Please note: this video is simply an audio of our interview as no visual recordings were taken.

Raising awareness is key to fighting human trafficking, and finding new ways to campaign for a cause is always a good thing. Since I enjoy photography and photo editing, I asked some girls from my school community if I could photograph them holding moving quotes that have been said about the Human Trafficking Epidemic. I invite everyone to raise awareness about this issue in their own way and utilise their skills to initiate change.

Human Trafficking is an issue that affects women all around the world.

Be the voice these women need and talk about trafficking.

Start the conversation in your community today, and initiate the change.

Here are some organizations and resources you can support and learn from...

Note: Please click on the names to be taken to each website.

Not For Sale

Pathfinder Justice Initiative

Women Trafficking and Child Labour Eradication Foundation

Devatop Centre For Africa Development

Print these campaign posters and put them up around your community, or share them online!

Note: These posters are not created by me, they're posters I've found over the course of my investigation and have stood out to me. You can find the websites where I found these posters in my Works Cited below.

My Takeaways

This project has really allowed me to get a better understanding of my local community and the way gender is perceived, as well as the topic of human trafficking in general. I’ve always had an interest in the problem of human trafficking and have been motivated to make a change. Now, however, I have the tools and knowledge to effectively initiate change and I know I will continue pursuing awareness campaigns related to human trafficking during the rest of my time in high school. Speaking with a local resource allowed me to get a much more personal outlook on the topic as a whole. My local resource was actually my father, yet I learnt so many new things while discussing and interviewing with him. Now, instead of reading about facts and figures from scholarly articles, I have heard women’s stories about their experiences in trafficking, have learnt about exactly what type of process women go through when being trafficked, and have listened to the hardships and abuse victims of trafficking face. Talking with a local resource helped me form a personal connection with my topic and build my passion even more.

Initially, I did not realise gender was so heavily tied to human trafficking. Now I know that cultural perceptions of women and topics I have learnt in my course, such as gender essentialism and hegemonic masculinity, play huge roles in the reasons human trafficking continues to exist. Through this project, I have learnt more about what I can do in my community that will effectively raise awareness. After speaking with my local source, I know that educating local women about trafficking won’t be effective. However, campaigning around Lagos, online, and in my school to raise awareness and get people talking about this issue will help. I’ve realised that different issues need to be advocated for in different ways. To be a good advocate of change, one must investigate the most effective way to go about it. 

After this investigation, I’m left with questions regarding the local NGOs and organisations in my community. I will definitely be reaching out to as many as I can and finding out more ways how I can effectively advocate for the victims of human trafficking.

Share this project
  1. April 26, 2019 by Ashley.Omondi

    Hey Ellie, thank you for sharing this. In my school gender studies class we learned a little about this topic and read a story that helped us better understand the topic. You should check it out and so should others: It is quite vivid and graphic but it also helps people see this is issue more personally rather than statistically.

    • April 29, 2019 by Ellie Pearson

      Ashley, thank you for sharing this story. This is very moving and it’s so sad that stories like this are not uncommon. This girl was 17! So many of us are that age too, wow it’s so shocking. It’s very cool how your school is giving you stories like this. I definitely think more people need to become aware of the human side of trafficking and, as you said, see the issue personally instead of statistically. Thank you again!

  2. April 28, 2019 by Sandeepa.Das

    Hi Ellie! It’s so cool to see you doing a GOA class on Gender Studies, I find it’s so inspiring for you to be able to raise awareness on such an in-depth topic! Thank you so much for sharing how you raised awareness on this topic as it inspires me to start up something of my own next year. Your external links and videos compliment really really well to your overall presentation! Good job!!

    • April 28, 2019 by Ellie Pearson

      Thank you so much Sandeepa! I’m glad you’re feeling inspired!

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