In 2012, the death of Cynthia Udoka Osokogu, a Nigerian woman who was stalked on Facebook, exposed one of the dark sides of the internet. Before her untimely death, Osokogu was a young businesswoman living in the Federal Capital Territory of Nigeria. The deceased was lured out of her residence by her new ‘Facebook friend’ who claimed he would support her business to new heights.
However, Cynthia was raped and murdered by the man she met on Facebook upon visiting him.
Following the death, there have been reports of similar stories of violence against women tracing their roots to the internet as part of an emerging form of cybercrime crisis in Nigeria and globally.
The severity of the crime is highlighted by the FBI’s 2020 Internet crime Report, which showed 791,790 complaints of suspected internet crime compared to 300,000 complaints in 2019.
Locally, in Nigeria, the Economic and Financial Crime Commission EFCC disclosed that 80% of the 978 convictions were connected to the internet as of 2021. The United Nations describe cybercrime as having cyber-dependent offences, cyber-enabled offences and, as a specific crime-type, online child sexual exploitation and abuse.
While financial cybercrime has received a lot of attention, there has been an increase in other types of cybercrime, particularly cyber violence against women. These violent acts include cyber-enabled trafficking of women, revenge pornography, otherwise referred to as non-consensual pornography, and romance scams.
“Women are more likely than men to be victims of severe forms of cyber violence, and the impact on their lives is far more traumatic,” said Jurgita Peciuriene, EIGE’s programme coordinator for gender-based violence.
Elsewhere, the European Institute for Gender Equality, EIGE, also estimated that one in ten women have already experienced cyber violence since the age of 15 years, despite its relative newness.
Cyber-enabled Trafficking of Women
In Nigeria, Director Administration NAPTIP, Benedicta Ojugbami, while speaking at the launch of the Cyber Wo-Fare Project organised by Women in ICT Foundation in 2021, said the agency is swamped with cases of trafficked teenage girls involving transactions that began and ended on social media.
“While the traditional means of human trafficking remains in place, research shows that cyber technologies give human traffickers the unprecedented ability to exploit a greater number of victims and advertise their services across boundaries,” she said.
According to a global report on trafficking in persons conducted by the UNODC, there has been an increase in court cases of trafficking with internet technology. In one case, a group of traffickers set up and ran a “cybersex den” to exploit victims via coercive webcam performances. The four male traffickers forced 21 women into ‘cybersex,’ keeping them in an apartment with dance performances in some rooms.
The research notes that internet-based trafficking has grown in complexity, ranging from simple setups of advertising victims online to traffickers, using communications channels to broadcast exploitation abroad, and connecting with potential victims and trafficking group members. It is also observed that more women are victims of trafficking than men. Between January and June, the National Agency for the Prohibition of Trafficking in Person NAPTIP reported 741 victims where 628 are females representing 84.8%.
Abayomi Ajibola, the president of the Journalist International Forum for Migration (JI FORM), suggested that the lack of adequate economic empowerment opportunities for females in the country is one of the reasons why female trafficking increased last year. Another reason for the spike is conveyed in the UN’s Secretary-General’s 2022 report on trafficking in women and girls, which projected that 47 million more women and girls would be pushed below the poverty line due to the COVID-19 crisis’s increased vulnerability to trafficking.
The COVID-19 pandemic has pushed traffickers to innovate new strategies likely to outlive the health crisis. The restrictions on movement and closed borders have compelled traffickers to leverage cyberspace to propel their business. Due to COVID-19, two-thirds of frontline trafficking workers have reported increasing online recruitment by traffickers for sexual exploitation, including through webcams and forced online pornography.
“With the advent of COVID-19 pandemic, human traffickers have shifted from physical recruitment of their victims to virtual recruitment through virtual assessment of victim and proxy negotiation,” the NAPTIP report indicated.
These virtual assessments are done through victims’ social media pages, online gaming sites, and online dating sites. More disturbing, in 2019, a BBC investigation by Owen Pinnell & Jess Kelly revealed that apps like Instagram, 4sale, and Haraj were used for trading domestic workers online through posts promoted via algorithm-boosted hashtags and sales negotiated via private messages. These workers were usually from developing countries worldwide, with the majority being women.
In Nigeria, Abayomi Ajibola said that social media is increasingly becoming a place for mobilising women for trafficking outside the country, primarily through the promise of better job opportunities.
In 2020, a Lebanese national named Wael Jerro reported putting up a Nigerian woman for sale at $1,000, including her passport details. It’s equally reported that victims are made for sharing intimate details online, which is used to coerce or control them.
Cyber-enabled Funding of Trafficking
According to the International Labour Organization (ILO), the forced labour industry generates an annual profit of $150 billion. Commercial sexual exploitation accounts for two-thirds of this total, while forced economic exploitation, including domestic labour, agriculture, and other economic pursuits, accounts for $51 billion. The average woman trafficked for forced sexual servitude/exploitation generates from 100% to 1,000% return on investment. On the other hand, the United Nations notes that the smuggling route from East, North, and West Africa to Europe alone generates $6.75 billion in annual profits. According to the United State Government Accountability Office (GAO), traffickers are increasingly using online marketplaces and virtual currency to conceal the source of payments. Online marketplaces aid trafficking by providing anonymity, linking buyers and vendors, and permitting a variety of payment methods, such as peer-to-peer payments and virtual currencies via dark web software.
Winning against the Trafficking Warfare
With commercial sexual exploitation generating significant profits for perpetrators, it is critical to combat toxic masculinities that promote men’s claim to women’s bodies. Civic societies must increase their efforts to oppose patriarchal systems, ideas, and practices. Complimentarily, Abayomi Ajibola suggested addressing the root causes of trafficking, mainly poverty, inadequate economic opportunities, illiteracy, and inadequate knowledge of human rights. He also added that the anti-trafficking campaign for women be taken to social media while existing traditional initiatives are strengthened.
He advocated for a stronger relationship between the media, non-governmental organisations, NAPTIP, and other government agencies.
Rabiah A. Hassan, Esq., a legal practitioner who strongly advocates the promotion and protection of human rights, suggests the need to fast-track the prosecution of offenders. This is because human trafficking not only vitiates the fundamental tenets upon which the base enjoyment of human life relies but also deprives its victims of a stable, conscious existence.
Victims of trafficking suffer severely from PTSD associated with mental, physiological, and even emotional instability. In addition to scaling up tracking and identification mechanisms of trafficking offenders, proper profiling of offenders needs to be done in line with current realities. Serial and, in some cases, non-serial offenders should be identified and publicised. “In Nigeria where it is now mandatory for every Nigerian to have NIN, one can leverage on the advantage of this form of identification in sourcing and getting all the required details of offenders.”
An example of such is SPOTLIGHT, a project by the U.S.-based NGO Thorn, which employs cutting-edge technology to identify victims of human trafficking, particularly minors. It uses the Spotlight programme, which has helped place over 14,874 juvenile victims of sex trafficking who have advertised sex services on escort sites. Nearly 17,000 traffickers have been identified by law enforcement agencies in the United States and Canada.
As a result of Spotlight, users have experienced a 60% reduction in investigation time.
In Nigeria, the Director-General of NAPTIP, Dr. Fatima Waziri–Azi, early in the year announced a partnership with the United States (US) National Centre for Missing and Exploited Children to help tackle online recruitment, trafficking, and exploitation of victims. Other relevant agencies should support such efforts, replicated by NGOs focusing on fighting human trafficking while encouraging public support.
There is also a need for increased synergy between and amongst security agencies, law enforcement agencies, human rights promoters, and enforcement agents to avoid duplication of responsibilities and adequate and proper profiling. Rabiah stated that the punishment for traffickers should be increased to range from the most extended sentencing to life imprisonment. Community services should not be an option in punishing traffickers. This is because trafficking, in her opinion, is akin to rape. In trafficking, victims are forced into consistent non-consensual sexual intercourse with various sex partners. This is traumatic enough, but it may invariably destroy the victim’s self-esteem and self-worth.
Essentially, tech companies like Facebook should strengthen their cyber security settings to defend against cyber violence or cyber-enabled crime and improve their algorithms to catch criminals.
This story was supported by Code for Africa’s WanaData initiative and the World Association for Christian Communication