'Witchcraft' Used to Fight Sex Trafficking in Africa

An innovative British effort to stem sex trafficking in Africa uses belief in magic and witchcraft to help victims. Continue reading →

The British government is using a powerful new tool in its efforts to end sex trafficking and slavery in Africa: witchcraft - or at least belief in magic.

"The Independent" newspaper recently revealed an innovative method to help West African women who have been forced into sex trafficking:

"Britain's anti-slavery commissioner is examining radical new plans to prosecute sex traffickers by ‘reversing' the juju spells that terrorize many of their victims into staying silent. More than 100 Nigerian women were identified last year as having been trafficked into sexual slavery with their obedience ensured by magic rituals that threaten them with infertility or death if they reveal what has happened to them."
"The level of terror instilled by juju led British police to spend two years trying to dispel the fears of women so they could give evidence in the first case of its kind in Europe, in 2011."

The victims are often reluctant to testify in court against those who abducted and forced them into prostitution, in part because of fear of magical retribution. Kevin Hyland, England's first anti-slavery commissioner has been in contact with anti-trafficking officials in Nigeria who have located witch doctors believed to have placed curses on the victims and forced them to remove the curse or face criminal prosecution.

Using magic - or, more accurately, belief in magic - as a way to stem human trafficking is not only a novel idea, but likely a very effective one. Belief in the power of magic is very strong throughout much of sub-Saharan Africa, and many live under the (real or perceived) threat of magical retribution, and the fear that witch doctors - or those who hire them - have power over their fortunes, health and lives. In some cases belief in magic helps spread AIDS in Africa.

Measures that fail to address the victims' underlying belief system are unlikely to be successful because to the extent that a problem is psychosomatic, the root of the problem will be ignored. It is not helpful for a psychologist to simply tell an obsessive-compulsive sufferer, for example, that he doesn't have to open and close his front door seven times before entering his home; he will still feel the compulsion to do so regardless of any arguments or evidence that it's unnecessary.

Disordered thoughts and compulsions can be dampened by medication, but at the end of the day what's needed to address the root of the problem is a new way of framing or understanding the issue. If the Nigerian women truly believe that they have been cursed, no amount of denying or debunking - especially by foreign British doctors - will convince them otherwise: You have to fight fire with fire, or magic with magic.

Curses and Placebos Belief in the power of curses is a form of placebo effect, which only works if the patient believes it's effective. The power of the placebo is strong indeed; it can give pain medications a boost, and even enhance athletic performance; recent research revealed that runners who (wrongly) believed that they were performing with doped blood run faster than they thought they could.

Belief in curses and evil spirits caused singer Olivia Newton-John to have a blessing or cleansing ritual performed on a Florida home she was selling; she was concerned that potential buyers might be scared off by the spirit of a man who'd committed suicide there.

While the idea of curses may seem antiquated or confined to the poor and superstitious Third World, that is not the case. Plenty of wealthy and educated Americans believe in curses, and in fact it is not unusual for self-proclaimed psychics to con their clients into believing that a curse has been placed upon them, and that the psychic can help remove the curse - for a fee, of course.

It often begins with a typical psychic reading, when a person goes to a fortuneteller or "intuitive" seeking advice or insight. In the course of the reading the psychic may ask if the client has had any bad luck, accidents, struggles, health problems or other misfortunes; like most of us some recent examples will come to mind, and the psychic may then claim that these bad things were not simply random chance but harmful acts intentionally caused by an enemy - a curse in other words.

It doesn't always happen, and the clients don't always fall for this scam, but many do, and it is common enough that psychics are routinely arrested and charged with fraud across the United States for this ancient curse-removal scheme. Belief in some form of magic is universal, and if that belief can be used to help stop sex trafficking, then so much the better.

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