At first, the students thought the men who arrived that night had come to save them. This is what the soldiers insisted they were doing when they ordered the girls out of their dormitories in the dark of April 14. But as the school burned, it became clearer what the girls were being protected from: education. In the Hausa tongue native to that part of northern Nigeria, the group’s name, Boko Haram, means, roughly, “Western education is unclean.”
The men hadn’t bothered to be stealthy. They’d announced their intentions in nearby villages. They’d even stopped and asked local herdsmen for directions to the Government Girls Secondary School in Chibok, according to reports from Amnesty International. The spooked herdsmen and villagers had relayed their concerns to the authorities. Nevertheless, the all-girls school was unprotected when large numbers of armed extremists arrived hours later and herded the students onto trucks and buses.
Boko Haram is known as a terrorist group, but with its latest thrust, it has moved into a new line of business: large-volume human trafficking. The group’s leader, Abubakar Shekau, hinted at as much in one of two videos he released after the abduction. “We will give their hands in marriage because they are our slaves,” he announced. “We will sell them in the market.”
Intentionally or not, Boko Haram set off a wave of outrage that started with the girls’ mothers, then splashed to almost every corner of the world. Casual observers and celebrities took their protest to social media, while international agencies and diplomats began to express concern through official channels. Secretary of State John Kerry said the U.S. would “provide whatever assistance is possible” to help return the girls, while Republican Senator John McCain urged the deployment of American Special Forces. The global wail served as a wake-up call to the millions who were under the misimpression that slavery had been eradicated.
The fate of the 276 girls in Nigeria is, in the view of some, a race against the clock. While one girl says on a video released on May 11 that they had not been abused, observers fear that they will be sold into prostitution or given as “wives” to soldiers. Girls who have returned from previous kidnappings by Boko Haram have all arrived pregnant or with young babies. “Let us call evil by its name,” says Sister Rosemary Nyirumbe, who runs a center for girls who were captured, sometimes by the schoolful, to become “wives” of the Lord’s Resistance Army in Sudan and Northern Uganda during the ’90s. “Let us say these girls are being given in sex slavery.”
The Modern Slave Trade
On the spectrum of abhorrent business practices, buying and selling humans, especially children, remains the gold standard. Yet modern abolitionists say it happens all the time. “This Nigerian eruption is a chilling and unusual form of trafficking,” says Carol Smolenski, executive director of ECPAT-USA, an organization that fights child trafficking. “But I can tell you definitively that the sexual exploitation of children takes place in every country.” Many nations are simply in denial about it. “I’ve learned, after 22 years of working on this issue, the first conversation in any new country starts with, ‘But we don’t have that here.'”
It may not look like the slave trade of old–no country legally protects the institution of slavery anymore, and the shackles are economic or psychological rather than physical–but the trade in humans is a thriving 21st century business. Finding people to enslave is not that complicated. The most fertile ground shares three main attributes: a heavy mantle of poverty, a cluster of especially vulnerable people and only trace amounts of the rule of law. Much of the world fits that description.
The most conservative abolitionists estimate that 21 million people are currently in some sort of involuntary servitude, while others say it’s closer to 30 million. Either way, it’s the highest number in history. According to the U.N., victims from 136 different countries have been found in 118 other countries, having been taken there either against their will or through deceit. China, India and Pakistan have the most slaves, followed by Nigeria, but smaller countries like Mauritania and Haiti have a higher prevalence of slavery.
The numbers are very approximate. Not only does the trade thrive on invisibility, but also not everybody agrees on the definition of trafficking or slavery. “If you deprive someone of their liberty through force, coercion or fraud for the purpose of exploiting them, that’s considered trafficking,” says Nick Grono, CEO of the Freedom Fund. Under that definition, trafficking exists on a continuum. Child brides, a frighteningly high number of prostitutes and underpaid immigrant maids can be considered trafficked, as well as girls sold by their parents into brothels.
What percentage of these unfree agents serve the sex industry is even harder to pin down. The latest report (2012) from the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) puts the sex-trade estimate at 58% of all the trafficking it can detect. In contrast, the International Labor Organization estimates that only 22% of women trafficked end up as prostitutes. What nobody disagrees about, though, is the return on investment.
“The sex-trafficking industry is hugely profitable,” says Grono. “The annual profit margin on each woman is about 70%. Highly successful companies such as Google have a profit margin of around 22%.” Because it’s so lucrative, traffickers have found myriad ways to conscript new women. Sometimes victims are kidnapped, and sometimes they’re simply hoodwinked by false offers of a better life through training, education or a low-level but legal job in a wealthy, faraway land. Some girls are wooed by boyfriends who turn out to be captors. What they thought was a ticket to paradise takes them instead to hell on earth.
And tragically, some girls are sold by their parents, usually unwittingly. Grono’s research found that traffickers in South Asia were paid $300 to $800 per girl. In Mumbai, each sexual service a girl renders could earn her exploiters $10. “Women are expected to perform 10 to 20 sex acts a night,” says Grono.
Sex trafficking is one of those rare businesses in which the rewards are high and the risks relatively low. Chances of getting caught are slim. Once the women have children, they are less likely to try to escape or seek out authorities. And policing is spotty. From 2007 to 2010, 16% of the countries the UNODC studied did not record a single conviction for any kind of trafficking.
The poor-and-vulnerable archetype does not apply in every case. Nor is it true that this is only a developing-world problem. Shandra Woworuntu, a college graduate who had worked at the Treasury Department of the Korea Exchange Bank in Indonesia, arrived at JFK Airport in New York City in 2001 expecting a job at a hotel. Instead she was taken to a brothel and stripped of her passport and belongings at gunpoint. After several months of being handed around brothels in Connecticut and New York, she escaped by removing the louvers from a second-floor bathroom window. She now works with other survivors of trafficking. “I’m educated and I became a victim,” she says. “It can happen to anyone.”
Move the spotlight that’s currently trained on Nigeria’s Borno state almost anywhere else in the world and it will reveal some kind of trade in human beings. Some is easily identified: in the upper Volta region of Ghana, the fishing industry is profitable only on the backs of hundreds of children. Some is almost invisible, corralled in high-tech factories in Asia or construction in the Middle East. No country is untouched.
In one way, the girls from Chibok had been lucky. More than a third of Nigerian children work full time and don’t attend school, while 28% combine work and school. According to UNESCO, Nigeria has more children who are not in the classroom than anywhere else in the world.
But the girls’ education made them targets. They were only at school briefly to sit for exams when Boko Haram, which has been in a grueling fight with the Nigerian army for months, struck. “As the security situation in a society erodes, girls tend to be more vulnerable,” says Emily Janoch, who works on gender issues at CARE. “They tend to be on the front lines of who’s getting penalized for broader conflicts because it’s easier to get at them. And because they are not valued as much.”
Being female and Nigerian is, in fact, one of the less lucky human conditions. According to the UNODC, Nigeria is one of the top countries of origin for human trafficking. There’s a particularly active corridor between that part of West Africa and Italy. Some estimates suggest that 60% of the prostitutes in Italian brothels hail from Nigeria.
Indeed, the Chibok girls’ case is not even the most extreme example of Nigerian child trafficking. In May 2013, 17 pregnant girls ages 14 to 17 were rescued from a so-called baby farm, an orphanage in Imo, in the southeast, where they had all been impregnated, reportedly by the same man. The infants they bore were being sold off for adoption, forced labor or worse. This is not the only baby farm Nigerian police have uncovered. UNICEF estimates that at least 10 children are sold daily across the country.
And then there are the Child brides. Even Nigerians who believe in educating their daughters will arrange to have them married young, prematurely ending their schooling. “Forced marriage is common in the northern part of the country, where we also have the issue of child marriage,” says Chigoziri Ojiaka, an attorney and the director of Nigeria’s Gender and Child Rights Initiative in Lagos. The area around where the girls were taken has one of the highest rates of child marriage in the world.
By most definitions, forcing a child to marry is another form of sex trafficking. But activists who work with communities where child marriage is customary say parents sometimes believe they are doing the best thing for their daughters. “As girls get old they might get harassed as they go to school, so parents will marry them to protect them from that,” says Janoch. “Not getting married at all has really dire consequences.”
An Awkward Coincidence
In the case of the Chibok girls, even though some of their parents went after them, found them and informed local military leaders of their whereabouts, no immediate rescue operation was mounted. “What surprises us is the indifference of the military, which did nothing to intercept the kidnappers in their movements from one town to the other with our girls,” said Pogu Bitrus, a Chibok elder.
Not only was the army unwilling or unable to act, but almost three weeks passed before the girls’ plight was publicly acknowledged by Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan. That meant the abduction was big news just as Nigeria was trying to spruce up its image as host of the World Economic Forum (WEF) in its capital, Abuja. The missing girls quickly became Topic A. Even Africa’s richest man waded into the fray. “The situation is out of hand,” said Aliko Dangote, who has built a more than $2 billion fortune in Nigeria on cement, sugar, salt and, more recently, energy. “I think the government is trying to get themselves together. I think they have been taken by surprise.”
Nigeria is very much a tale of two countries. In April the country “rebased” its GDP numbers to adjust for new industries like telecoms and its movie industry, known as Nollywood. Overnight, GDP grew by 89%, making Nigeria’s the largest economy on the continent, surpassing South Africa’s and growing at about 7%. Jonathan was no doubt hoping the WEF would be an opportunity for foreign investors to give his country another look.
But poverty has a way of repelling money, and Nigeria’s wealth is unevenly spread. Much of it is concentrated in the southern, predominantly Christian states. The north, where Boko Haram operates, is excruciatingly poor and mostly Muslim. Boko Haram claims to want to start a separate nation under Shari’a–in one video released by the group, the girls were shown wearing Islamic coverings and professing their faith in Allah–but many experts believe the conflict in the north is more about economic desperation and thuggery than faith. The World Bank estimates that 100 million Nigerians live in poverty. At least 20 million are unemployed, 5 million of them youths. Almost 45% of the population is under 15. In March, so many applicants turned up for entry tests into the Nigeria Immigration Service that there were stampedes and 19 people were killed.
Stopping the Traffic
An understanding of what modern slavery looks like has grown exponentially in the U.S. in the past few years, as have efforts to address it. In July 2013, the FBI staged a three-day action–Operation Cross Country VII–that netted 105 children and 150 pimps across 76 cities. In April that year, the Obama Administration released a strategic action plan designed to better assist victims of trafficking.
In this case, the U.S. has sent 16 military, law-enforcement and technical advisers to Nigeria and is providing commercial satellite imagery as well as flying manned reconnaissance missions to help find the missing girls. Boko Haram’s leader says he wants to exchange them for prisoners, which seems unlikely. The international pressure may spell harm or rescue for them. If they’re dispersed into small groups to avoid detection, the chances they will endure sexual abuse–and be lost forever–are much higher.
Rescuing the students, warns Sister Rosemary, is only the first step in a long journey back for them. So far very few of their names have been released, in part to avoid any of the perverse stigma of rape, which can often fall on the victim. If the girls have been abused they’ll need their education more than ever, partly because traditional marriage may be closed to them and partly because they’ll need to be taught that their circumstances do not mean they no longer have value. “When these girls come out, it would be good to let them be together and to find some useful activities for them so they can get absorbed,” says Sister Rosemary. “Send in counselors, but the real counseling comes when they can sit together and talk.”
It’s no accident that the best solution for the challenges faced by the Nigerian girls–and nearly all those who are sexually trafficked–is education, the very thing Boko Haram wishes to “rescue” them from. Many women who get coerced into prostitution all over the world do not see themselves as victims. Their brothel becomes their home, their pimp family. Without a viable alternative future, a lot of those rescued from sex work return to it. This is especially true in countries where poverty is endemic and women are not valued. But it’s not untrue even in the wealthiest nations. “I’m telling you sincerely this is not just a Nigerian problem anymore,” says Sister Rosemary. “This is happening everywhere.”
–With reporting by Rana Foroohar/Abuja
This appears in the May 26, 2014 issue of TIME.