KEDOUGOU, Senegal (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Huddled together in the corner of a dimly-lit bar in southeast Senegal while men swig beer, smoke and shout over the blaring music, Grace and the women beside her are silent and somber.
Despite their sequined tops, colorful make-up and striking hairstyles, these women are not here to party.
They are victims of sex trafficking, duped into leaving Nigeria with the promise of work in Europe but dumped in Kedougou, a gold mining region, and forced into prostitution.
“I was so angry when I arrived that I refused to have sex for the first month,” Grace told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“Then I thought about getting home one day and helping my family ... What choice did I have?” added the 24-year-old, an aspiring university student from Nigeria’s Edo state who believed she would be working in a hair salon in Italy.
Grace is one of more than 1,000 women and girls selling sex in Kedougou, according to United Nations estimates although no official data exists. Many have been trafficked from Nigeria.
Campaigners say the number of women trafficked is rising as a gold rush in Senegal fuels demand for sex workers from miners, many of whom believe dirtying themselves - by drinking and paying for sex - will boost their chances of striking gold.
Stripped of their documents and fearing for their lives, these women are forced to work off debts to their traffickers of up to 3 million CFA francs ($4,900) - in a region where miners pay no more than 2,000 CFA ($3) a time for sex.
Many women recalled being beaten, abused and extorted by clients and even police officers, who activists say are too few and poorly trained to tackle trafficking and identify victims as prostitution is legal here and some women choose to sell sex.
“NO MAN’S LAND”
The state, however, says it has bolstered police numbers, focused on prosecuting traffickers and is working with civil society groups to train officials and give support to victims.
Police representatives in the region could not be reached for comment.
While an informal mining boom across West and Central Africa in recent years has brought wealth to local communities, it has also allowed criminality to thrive, civil society groups say.
“These mines are a murky, gray area when it comes to human trafficking and other crimes,” said Jo-Lind Roberts, country head for the International Organization for Migration.
Gold mining is an age-old tradition in Kedougou, yet it has been transformed in recent years by the arrival of foreign firms and migrant workers, locals say.
This growth, coupled with the region’s porous borders, has seen the numbers of women trafficked into sex work soar, with most coming from Nigeria, according to anti-trafficking experts.
“These men stop you in the street or come to your home and say: ‘I can change your life and make you a big woman,’” said Destiny, 20. “But I arrived here and could barely afford to eat, let alone think about sending money home to my family.”
Most of the victims live in squalid huts with no water, electricity, or toilets, and far from health centers.
“It is an awful living and working environment for these women,” said Issa Saka of the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime. “It really is no man’s land for them in the bush.”
Many women struggle to go home even after repaying debts - which can take several years with victims having to sleep with an average of more than 1,000 men to buy back their freedom.
Most cannot afford to save for the journey back, some are ensnared by witchcraft which instills fear that they or their relatives may fall ill or die if they disobey their traffickers, while others are simply too ashamed to return home empty-handed.
“If I were to go home without any money, and tell my family what I had been doing here, they would not respect me, not even look at me,” said Rita, adding that the two or three clients she sees each day leave her with barely enough money to survive on.
In Kedougou - a vast, forested and isolated region - an absence of law enforcement, a lack of training and poor laws are hindering efforts to stop sex trafficking, activists say.
Boubacar Fofana of the charity World Vision said the police are stretched too thinly to effectively tackle crime and, with prostitution legal, it was hard to identify trafficking victims as opposed to women willingly choosing to sell sex.
“We need to raise awareness among these women of their rights, and improve confidence in the state and police so that more victims feel like they can come forward,” said Awa Ndour of Senegal’s anti-trafficking task force.
While the authorities and activists try to reach victims, changing the mindset of Kedougou’s miners may prove harder.
“There is a danger that people here may choose to ignore or even hide such crimes, as they don’t want it to affect an industry that brings them so much money,” said Fofana.
For Grace, like many other victims, relying on the state or the community for help is not an option. All she can do is work for several years in the hope of one day making it home.
“All I want to do is go to university back home,” she said. “But the road is far, I have no money and my family know nothing about my life here. I don’t know if I can ever make it back.”
($1 = 614.4800 CFA francs)