‘On Black Sisters Street’ Showcases the Nuances of Sexual Trafficking

Written by Precious Uzoma-Nwosu

Edited by Veronica Vivi

Illustrated by Noella Abba

https://open.spotify.com/episode/6YgNVArJnwZ7xjO81KoUIG?si=e23a5271a0544ca7


While growing up, there were rules set by my father that were never to be compromised on, and among them was not spending holidays with another family aside from our own. I was greatly disturbed by this boundary, as my friends often share tales of their visits to their relatives’ houses after the school breaks. As I became wiser, I realized that my father felt his children would be safe from sexual exploitation, including sexual trafficking, if we stayed within his watch. Therefore, it was home, school (although boarding), church, and places that were supervised by him or my mother – he did not want to leave any loopholes.


His fears were rightly placed as according to a scientific analysis by the World Health Organization (WHO), approximately 35% of women globally, have experienced physical or sexual violence. So, he was just a father striving to shield his children, especially his four daughters from such violence, sexual trafficking included. However, while his apprehensions are valid, the issue is more nuanced. Social conditioning (namely unemployment and poverty), and failed governments, come into play in sexual trafficking, irrespective of whether attentive parents or not.


Great help in shedding light on these nuances include Nigerian movies such as Itohan, Muna, and Oloture, where the main characters were either survivors, victims, or secret investigators. Additionally, books, especially by Black women who have in-depth knowledge of these topics, also revealed the layers of the details of sexual assault, its psychological impact, and its infringement on women’s rights. A notable example is On Black Sisters Street, a work by Chika Unigwe, an Afro-Belgian writer who is a recipient of multiple awards for her writing, and who holds a Ph.D. from the University of Leiden. The book narrates the chilling tale of four women sex workers (Sisi, Ama, Efe, and Joyce), thrown together by Dele (a pimp) and fate in an apartment in the red-light district of Antwerp, from the shores of Africa (Nigeria), bringing with them an invisible bag saddled with stories only unpacked when Sisi is murdered.


Europe, among other countries, has been identified as a hot spot for the sex industry. According to the European Parliament, in 2017–2018, over 14,000 identified victims of trafficking were reported by EU nations, with 72% being women and girls. Women and girls belonging to this 72% were also from other countries, as a BBC interview with a Nigerian victim of sex trafficking depicts Copenhagen’s Vesterbro (red light district), where she was unsuspectedly trafficked, as a hub for prostitution for traffickers serves as an example.


With Nigerian sex workers letting her into their lives and a grant from Het Vlaams Fonds Voor de Letteren, Chika also reveals Belgium, the setting of On Black Sister Street, as a trafficking territory in Europe, showing streets where Black women in sexy lingerie are displayed in a glass box like accessories to attract customers. Using Belgium as backdrop, Chika explores in depth the themes of sexual trafficking and slavery, revealing different angles to her readers.

Firstly, human traffickers and pimps do not often present themselves to the victims as they truly are. Their camouflage can be likened to the proverbial wolf in sheep’s clothing: they offer promises of a better life (opportunities victims could not access in their home countries), fake job offers, deceptive romance, and education from sugar-coated lips that could make even cautious parents fail to see right through them. According to Sofia Papadopulos (2020:2021), migration and trafficking both find their root causes in the context of origin: it is commonly agreed upon the principle that people migrate (whether legally or not) for seeking better conditions of living.

However, with Dele’s guileful mannerisms, it was obvious to the girls what was expected of them: prostitution. He, nevertheless, sold this idea with the promise of a better life for those wanting to improve their living conditions. Therefore, for unemployed Sisi, the arrangement seemed fair: travel outside, work with her body, pay Dele with the money she acquired from it, save some for herself, and live the life of luxury she has always wanted. Unfortunately, a shocking truth awaited Sisi, as she realized that she would not be granted asylum and be considered persona non grata in Europe. Under these circumstances, she could not work on her terms – her body was no longer hers and she was open to sexual exploitation and harassment from customers. Dele’s games were well-played. Further, through Ama’s story, we derive that family neglect and mistreatment could also be a factor in sexual trafficking. Ama’s driving force to go to a foreign land was to prove to her family – her father (Brother Cyril) who sexually molested her for years, and her mother who chose marriage over her daughter – that she could lead a successful life without them.


While it is easy from the comfort of our homes to scoff and ask victims, “Why then didn’t you try to leave such a situation?”, On Black Sisters Street informs the reader that victims face significant difficulties in case they desire to leave, as their passports and documents are often confiscated from them upon arrival. They are, therefore, forced into sex slavery by the debt of accommodation and travel, which is to be paid in installments, and normally take a couple of years to complete. Moreover, those who took direct action to regain their freedom, such as Sisi, place themselves at risk of getting their lives cut short by their pimps and organization, which hardly leaves a feasible way out. Readers also discover that those who engage in this system of exploitation are not just uneducated individuals unaware of its risks and repercussions, but also literate ones like Madam. Despite knowing the harm and trauma sexual trafficking causes to young women, they do not care and only focus on making profits and being in power.


Finally, through my supervisor, when I intended to utilize On Black Sisters Street for my thesis, I discovered that the text has been studied by multiple academics in their research on the sexual exploitation of women. I am delighted that On Black Sisters Street has been acknowledged within the academic community as it deserves all the recognition it can get. While I encountered this text for the first time during my college years, I strongly believe it should be included in high school literature curricula to educate young minds. This education fosters self-assurance and the ability to speak out against trafficking, thereby contributing to its prevention. Perhaps, if Dele had revealed the harsh realities awaiting the young ladies once they arrived in Europe, they might have reconsidered their decision. In addition, such inclusion in curricula could spark an interest in young individuals to advocate for policies and programs aimed at combating sexual trafficking and providing support to survivors in college or as a career pursuit later in life. Overall, it is imperative to educate both young girls and boys about sexual trafficking beyond the surface-level knowledge they might acquire from the streets or friends. This education is vital for their safety, well-being, and the broader battle against this appalling crime.

References and Works Cited

European Parliament (2021, February 11). ‘Stopping Human Trafficking: MEPS Call for More Action’. News of the European Parliament.

Deirdre, F. (2022, April). ‘Sex Work and the City: Liminal Lives in Chika Unigwe’s On Black Sisters Street. Journal of Migration and Culture Studies, 13(1), 47-60.

Papadopoulos, S. (2021). ‘Human Trafficking for Sexual Exploitation Purposes: A gender-based approach to the Nigerian – Italian route’. Institute for International Law of Peace and Armed Conflict-Ruhr University Bochum.

Pressly, L. (2021, October, 23). ‘Trafficked to Europe for Sex: A Survivor’s Escape Story. BBC News.

Unigwe, C. (2009). On Black Sisters Street. Random House.

WHO (2013), “Global and regional estimates of violence against women: prevalence and health effects of intimate partner violence and non-partner sexual violence: Executive summary”, WHO, op. cit.

Precious Uzoma-Nwosu is a culture, content and creative writer who specialises in topics relevant to women and covers other thought-provoking and intriguing stories that matter. Precious has written for reputable magazines like AMAKA Studio, Resonate, Voice Box, Culture Custodian, Adventures From, Document Women, Gay.Uk, etc. and is also a book reviewer. You can reach her on Twitter @adannaya.

Illustrator – Noella Abba, Instagram: @symphonianoella

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