ATHENS, Greece—If she runs away from her life of prostitution, her parents will become sick and die.
At least that’s what this Nigerian woman believes. The threatened curse, she claims, was part of a voodoo rite performed in her homeland just weeks before she was brought to Greece by a prostitution ring.
“I have no doubt in its power,” says the petite 24-year-old, who goes by the alias of Maria and described being forced into seven-night-a-week duty at a flophouse brothel on an Athens back street. “Even if I had a doubt, how could I risk the life of my mother and father?”
Maria’s case illustrates one of the least understood corners of the sex slavery underworld: gangs using the perceived potency of native West African voodoo and hexes to hold women in their grip. Recently, however, an unusual alliance has started fighting back.
“These women believe in voodoo and all kinds of lesser gods, but most are also Christian and believe in the one almighty God who is above all,” said Jennifer Roemhildt, who leads the Athens team for Lost Coin. Her organization is affiliated with International Teams, a nondenominational missionary group headquartered in the Chicago, Illinois, suburb of Elgin.
“God can undo the voodoo,” she added. “It just takes a while to convince them of this.”
Faith in the power of voodoo—sometimes called juju—is deeply ingrained in West African culture. It’s a direct link to ancient ancestor-based beliefs that include a wide variety of spirits and other supernatural entities, and it forms the base for rituals brought to the Caribbean and elsewhere.
In West Africa, voodoo priests still are often used to seal financial transactions or root out suspected thieves—often with a threat of a deadly curse for the wrongdoer.
Prostitution gangs parlay this fear to their advantage, Babandede said. Thousands of women and girls seeking transport to Europe—sometimes with false promises of legal work—undergo voodoo rituals that can involve drinking blood from cuts and taking nail and hair clippings as totems.
“They are told that fleeing the traffickers will bring death to them or their family,” said Babandede, who addressed a recent human trafficking conference in Turin, Italy, one of the hubs for Nigerian-based prostitution networks. “This is a heavy power over these women.”