Warrior for Justice

04.04.137:15 PM ET

Slavery’s Scourge

The U.N.’s special rapporteur on trafficking in persons on stopping the sex slavery of women and girls.

When she was young, just 2 years old and barely able to walk, Joy Ngozi Ezeilo was on the run. In 1968 a civil war had plunged Nigeria into chaos. She has no memory now of those days, but her parents told her that she knew the sounds of incoming shells and bombs and would scream as soon as she heard them.

Today Ezeilo is one of her country’s most forceful advocates for the rights of women. At 47, she’s the mother of three children herself, a woman with a big, contagious laugh but no time for nonsense: she looks at problems—and the people who create them—straight on. As the United Nations special rapporteur on trafficking in persons, with a special focus on women and children, she has global reach in the fight against modern-day slavery. She’s also a distinguished academic. But her firsthand experiences with suffering are what give her such striking passion. 

The turning point, she says, came when she was just 15 and a precocious student in secondary school. She’d never thought much about her gender. Then her father, a civil servant, died suddenly. When the family went to their ancestral village for the burial, Ezeilo felt her life turn upside down. “That was where I learned what women had to go through as women,” she says. “That was my first recognition that, well, you are different.”

In eastern Nigeria, the ritual mourning imposed on widows is brutal. The wife is presumed in some way guilty of her husband’s death. Many are forced to drink the water used to bathe the corpse. The husband’s relatives judge their cries of grief, finding fault. The humiliations are many, petty, and painful, and very often the inheritance that ought to be a widow’s right is taken from her.

“I was watching my mom being forced to cry,” Ezeilo remembers. “They say, ‘OK, you want to cry like this to show really that you are mourning, and you sit down here; you cannot take any food; you cannot shower; your hair has to be shaved.’” Ezeilo, the oldest of six children, was carrying her infant baby brother in her arms and looking on, appalled at all that was done to her mother: “I was, like, why would she do this? And so, from there and then I told my mom, I am going to be a lawyer, because I want to advocate the rights of women ... And I became one.”

“Modern slavery” ought to be an oxymoron, but in fact it’s a thriving $32 billion criminal commerce that sucks in just about every country you’ve ever heard of—the United States included. According to a report published by the FBI, millions of people in the United States, many of them children, “are trapped in lives of misery—often beaten, starved, and forced to work as prostitutes or to take grueling jobs as migrant, domestic, restaurant, or factory workers with little or no pay.” Elsewhere the traffic is crueler still.

Ezeilo first got involved with the issue directly through WomenAid Collective, the organization she founded to defend women’s rights in Nigeria. An organization in Germany had rescued several Nigerian women there and asked Ezeilo’s group “to help rehabilitate and reintegrate them,” she says. She also began to investigate the way the traffic works inside Nigeria, and discovered that children sent by their families to live with distant relatives so they can get a better education often wind up forced to work as hawkers or hookers out on the street.

As Ezeilo travels the world, she sees this enormous slave trade, in some respects as ancient as the Bible, being transformed by modern technology. Today traders do not conquer lands and cities so much as they conquer minds, playing on poverty and desperation, or just naiveté, to lure people into the commerce of human chattel. 

Promises are made for a better life in a richer place. Typically, once the victims are hooked, their passports are taken, and they’re told they owe huge amounts of money that they have to work off. They never again get their heads above water. And yet, by the tens of millions, people travel dangerous smuggling routes across Latin America and Africa; they sail on derelict boats packed to the gunwales with other slaves-to-be and in some cases fly thousands of miles, believing the lies that give them hope. In the United Arab Emirates, Ezeilo talked to a young woman from Colombia who was persuaded over the Internet that a good job awaited her in the U.A.E. She was sent the ticket and some money to travel, all on the computer. She never met any living, breathing human being until she got through immigration and met the men who enslaved her.

Such stories are familiar to Ezeilo now. Too familiar. When she was 15 and watching the humiliation of her mother, Ezeilo asked the fundamental question, why do you have to treat women this way? She’s still demanding to know the answer.