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How discussions about religious beliefs bridged a divide at a Nigerian women's shelter

Tuesday, June 05, 2018

LAWRENCE — Most citizens of Nigeria deeply distrust the Nigerian government, but at one state-run shelter for human trafficking victims, many young migrant women are finding common ground with state officials through religious beliefs and discussions about potential divine intervention in their lives, according to research by a University of Kansas professor.

The recent work published in the Political and Legal Anthropology Review points to the value of listening to the experiences of women who are victims or potential victims of human trafficking, said study author Stacey Vanderhurst, assistant professor in the Department of Women, Gender & Sexuality Studies.

"For me, this work is important for understanding the meaning women gave to their own experiences of danger and hardship and in particular, it's about how their religious frame of reference informed that understanding," she said. "We often talk about human trafficking without knowing how women identified as victims think about these issues."

Vanderhurst has performed fieldwork in Nigeria for more than 10 years, and for this project she conducted participant observation embedding herself in the shelter for more than a year. During the past two decades the Nigerian government has stopped many young migrant women from trying to leave the country, often to Europe, identifying them as victims of human trafficking and referring them to shelters run by a federal anti-trafficking agency. At these shelters, counselors worked with women in an effort to reduce their vulnerability to be being trafficked again.

Vanderhurst said how religion came into play in her observations in daily interactions in the clinic surprised her.

"I thought people were going to use religion as a way to judge women's experiences. That still happens, but women were also talking about how God had a plan for them to enter migrant sex work," said Stacey Vanderhurst, KU assistant professor in the Department of Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies. "And I was surprised the counselors working in this space didn't necessarily tell them they were wrong but instead engaged in a deeper theological conversation about how to understand their situation and how to make good decisions."

Many of the women in the study had expressed the desire to leave the country, and they would equate an offer to travel to Italy or elsewhere as an answer to a prayer for direction, for example.

Shelter staff would mostly try to steer the women away from migrating or lifestyles that might put them at risk of human trafficking into more entrepreneurial work, such as hair styling or other careers, she said, suggesting that this transition in the shelter might be part of a divine plan for their lives.

"As an anthropologist, I'm less interested in who was right or wrong in these conversations, but instead want to know how they fit in with other patterns in Nigeria," Vanderhurst said. "How do government officials talk about and use state power, when no one trusts the government? They can force these women into the shelter, but what do they do next to convince them to change their lives?"

The conversations surrounding religion demonstrate how ad hoc relationships of governance can be forged among even fervently contested encounters between citizens and the state in Nigeria.

"Both in research and activism work, we do a good job talking about structural factors that make people vulnerable, but spend less time listening to people's own version of their experiences, especially when those stories are framed in religious discourses that we don't share" Vanderhurst said.

This research could prove to be valuable for activists seeking to help victims at risk of human trafficking.

"This demonstrates the value of listening to women on their own terms," Vanderhurst said. "We can make policies that understand women are making purposeful moral choices when they take on these high-risk migration projects."

Photo: Former U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women's Issues Catherine Russell and Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Linda Thomas-Greenfield listen to a speaker as they meet with a group of young women who have been empowered, or are encouraging others to be empowered, through women's education on Aug. 24, 2016, in the Rosa Parks Room at the U.S. Embassy in Abuja, Nigeria. A University of Kansas assistant professor is researching the value of listening to the experiences of women who are victims or potential victims of human trafficking in Nigeria. Credit: U.S. State Department.


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