Society & Culture

UGA works to fight sex trafficking in Senegal

CenHTRO Director and professor of social work David Okech meets with gold miners in Kédougou, Senegal. (Submitted photo)

University of Georgia research and programs are combating the problem and helping survivors

The dry, copper-colored soil of Kédougou, a remote province in southeastern Senegal that borders Mali and Guinea, abounds with gold ore, attracting miners from across West Africa and creating modest wealth for people who once lived by raising crops and livestock.

At the Kharakhena gold mine in Kédougou, Senegal, temperatures regularly exceed 100. Tarps stretched over wooden structures provide the only shade. (Photo by André Gallant)

But transnational sex trafficking rings are taking advantage of the gold rush. Women from countries like Nigeria are being tricked into leaving their homes by traffickers who falsely promise them good jobs in Europe or the Middle East. They are instead taken to Kédougou and forced to engage in commercial sex.

In Senegal, commercial sex is legal. But new research from the University of Georgia’s Center on Human Trafficking Research & Outreach (CenHTRO) shows one in five women, aged 18-30, who are engaged in commercial sex in these gold mining areas have been trafficked. They are victims of severe sex trafficking, defined as commercial sex acts induced by force, fraud or coercion, or in which the person has not attained 18 years of age. In the study, survivors reported experiencing emotional, psychological and social manipulation to ensure that they stayed in their situation.

CenHTRO is leading data-driven responses that foster action on what’s considered a taboo subject in the local culture.

Gambia River Wash Day: Women and children wash clothes and play in the Gambia River in Kédougou, Senegal. (Photo by André Gallant)

“Sex trafficking is a very difficult conversation to have in Senegal,” said David Okech, CenHTRO director and professor at UGA’s School of Social Work. “Our research will demystify the problem and, hopefully, lead to solutions and justice for victims and survivors.”

UGA-led solutions are already proving their effect. CenHTRO programs are training communities to identify sex trafficking cases and help remove victims from trafficking situations. Last fall, CenHTRO and its implementing partner Free the Slaves helped dozens of survivors of sex trafficking reach shelters. Once there, they received trauma-informed support, legal assistance and vocational training. In late 2022 and early 2023, more than 30 survivors were returned home to Nigeria as a result of CenHTRO’s anti-trafficking network.

Empty beds at a shelter for survivors of human trafficking in Kédougou, Senegal. (Photo by André Gallant)

With the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, CenHTRO is strengthening prosecution efforts by advocating for new anti-trafficking laws and improving the capacity of law enforcement and judiciary to investigate and prosecute human trafficking cases.

“The importance of delivering programs that raise awareness of human trafficking and serve survivors cannot be overstated, particularly in and around magnet areas for trafficking such as this one,” said CenHTRO’s Senegal Program Manager Nnenne Onyioha-Clayton. “Programs should be foremost survivor-centered. Much work has been done in this regard, yet there is more that can be done to ensure that these programs deliver more sensitive, sustainable, long-term and positive impact on the lives of survivors and their communities. We work closely with our in-country partners to ensure that this happens.”

Sex trafficking in Senegal is a particularly complex problem, Okech added, because it transcends many borders. Sixty-eight percent of severe sex trafficking victims in Kédougou came from Nigeria.

“Given that there are about six countries between Nigeria and Senegal, it is possible that the women are not only exploited in Senegal, but likely throughout the long journey between the two countries by smugglers,” Okech said. “This means that our policy and programming interventions must be regional and not just focused on the destination country of Senegal, but also on the source and transit countries.”

The study—“Severe Sex Trafficking in the Gold Mining Regions of Kédougou, Senegal”—is funded by the U.S. Department of State Office to Combat and Monitor Trafficking in Persons. Data collection was conducted by international research firm Mantle, formerly known as Kantar Public. Okech is the principal investigator of the study. Co-investigators are Jody Clay-Warner, Meigs Professor of Sociology; Tamora Callands, assistant professor in the College of Public Health; and Alex Balch of the University of Liverpool.