NASW: Nigeria schoolgirl kidnappings underscore global human trafficking problem

Unidentified mothers of the kidnapped Nigerian girls protest for help in gaining their release. Photo courtesy of The Columbian.

Unidentified mothers of the kidnapped Nigerian girls protest for help in gaining their release. Photo courtesy of The Columbian.

The terrorist kidnapping of more than 200 girls from their boarding school in Nigeria and the threat they could be sold into the human trafficking market is a tragic and frightening event and social workers around the world should advocate for their release.

Social workers should also educate the public that human trafficking is a common. It is truly a worldwide problem that impacts every continent. 

The Islamist militant group Boko Haram has claimed responsibility for the April kidnapping of 273 girls from their school in the northeastern Nigerian town of Chibok.
The U.S. State Department ranks Boko Haram as one of the most dangerous terror groups in the world. The group has threatened to sell the girls in the human trafficking market for as little as the equivalent of 12 American dollars. As the parents of these young women know, if they are indeed sold as brides, into prostitution, or to the slave labor market the chances of ever seeing their daughters again are minimal.
One source of hope that the girls will be returned unharmed is the huge outcry from Nigerian women and many high profile women around the globe, including First Lady Michelle Obama. They have succeeded in getting the attention of the Western (especially American) media involved in covering this act of terror.
This is a welcome departure from past incidents of human rights violations that often went ignored by the press when they have occurred in sub-Saharan Africa.
What this incident has also done is remind the world of how widespread, heart-wrenching and insidious human trafficking is. Many Americans may assume that, while the abduction of the Nigeria school girls is a moral affront, their sons and daughters are safe from such barbarism. Nothing can be farther from the truth. 
According to the United Nations, an estimated 2.5 million people are in forced labor (including sexual exploitation) at any given time as a result of trafficking. Of these:
·        1.4 million – 56% – are in Asia and the Pacific
·        250,000 – 10% – are in Latin America and the Caribbean
·        230,000 – 9.2% – are in the Middle East and Northern Africa
·        130,000 – 5.2% – are in sub-Saharan countries
·        270,000 – 10.8% – are in industrialized countries
·        200,000 – 8% – are in countries in transition
·        161 countries are reported to be affected by human trafficking by being a source, transit or destination count
·        People are reported to be trafficked from 127 countries to be exploited in 137 countries, affecting every continent and every type of economy.
In the United States, human trafficking is dominant in the commercial sex industry. The Polaris Project, a non-profit-organization that advocates for policies to end human trafficking in this country, manages a human trafficking national hotline.
First Lady Michelle Obama is one of many influential women around the world who is has put attention on the plight of the Nigerian schoolgirls. Photo courtesy of

First Lady Michelle Obama is one of many influential women around the world who is has put attention on the plight of the Nigerian schoolgirls. Photo courtesy of

Between 2007 and 2012, they received 65,557 calls, 5,251 emails and 1,735 online reports on incidences of human trafficking across the United States.

Also, human trafficking in the commercial sex industry represents a major underground economy. In a 2007 Urban Institute study of seven U.S. cities, the tax-free dollars generated by sex industry was as follows: Atlanta, $290 million; Dallas, $98.8 million; Denver, $39.9 million; San Diego,  $96.8 million, Seattle, $112 million; and in Washington, D.C., $103 million.
While we urge the safe return of the 278 Nigerian young women and their families, we must remain cognizant of the fact that worldwide many thousands of women, children, and adults are held in virtual slavery and are being exploited as slave laborers or as sexual chattel each and every day. As stated in the National Association of Social Workers’ policy guide Social Work Speaks:
“If social workers are to assume a leadership role in ensuring and promoting human rights, they need to be knowledgeable about human trafficking and modern-day slavery and apply their tools and skills broadly and creatively.”
It is important that we all strongly advocate for the immediate release of the Nigerian school girls. It is equally important that we remain involved in advocating for the total eradication of human trafficking of any sort.
Other resources on human trafficking include:
United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC) (
Urban Institute. The Hustle: Economics of the Commercial Sex Industry (
For more information  on this issue contact Melvin H. Wilson, manager of NASW’s Department of Social Justice and Human Rights, at

One comment

  1. In the United States, trafficked for forced labor is also “dominant” but it doesn’t get reported, sensationalized, legislated, or tweeted about by celebrity spokespersons in the same way that anything involving sex does. As social workers, we should focus on the underlying issues that make people vulnerable to exploitation in many forms- and ensure that laws, social service programs, and activism work to end human trafficking regardless of the age, gender, race, ethnicity, country of origin, or sector/occupation of the victims. Social workers should be first in line to demand that legislation doesn’t leave people out of vital protections and services just because they don’t fit the stereotype perpetuated by TV movies. The ILO estimates that there are 21 million people in forced labor around the world, and almost 70% of them are in traditional forms of labor (not sex). All of this doesn’t undermine the fact that what happened in Nigeria is human trafficking, and that the survivors should be found, reunited, and given access to a full range of social services- but if we’re going to use it as an opportunity to talk about human trafficking and forced labor as a global phenomenon, then we absolutely must be talking about labor and sex equally. – Tiffany Williams, LGSW; National Domestic Workers Alliance

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