“Even if you are scared, the lion is still there inside you”
Anti-Slavery Day was recognized sometime this month. What follows is the story of Funmi, as told to be part of an immersive audio-visual walking tour of London’s red light district in Soho.
The event, organised by international women’s rights organisation Equality Now , shared a collection of powerful first-hand narratives from three women, all of whom have personal experience of sex trafficking and commercial sex exploitation.
Interwoven with the women’s narratives, are real comments left by men on a UK website where men who pay for sex go online to review the women they have had sex with.
The women’s stories reveal a unique insight into the realities and emotional impact of the sex industry from a British perspective, either through being British citizens, or through being trafficked to the UK. You can hear the stories in full here.
By telling their stories, Equality Now hopes to increase understanding in the UK, and enable the development of more effective policies and support services in England.
Funmi grew up in a loving family in West Africa. She went to university and studied to be a teacher, her dream job.
She fell in love and got married at a young age. But the man turned out to be extremely violent and abusive, and eventually beat her so badly that she spent three days in hospital.
Heartbroken by her experience, Funmi decided to come to the UK and start a new life as a teacher.
Unable to get a visa, her mother paid a lot of money for Funmi to travel to Britain on a fake passport. But Funmi didn’t realise that the men who had arranged it were traffickers who forced Funmi to work in a brothel as soon as she arrived in the UK, and trapped her there for four months.
This is Funmi’s story.
It was arranged for me to come to the UK by mum. I don’t know exactly how much my mother paid, I’m not sure, but it was a lot of money. I arrived in Heathrow and they came to pick me up. They said, I owed more money on top of what my mother had paid.
“On the second or third day, they called me and said what sort of job I should be doing. When he said escorting, I didn’t want to assume what he was saying. I said, ‘What do you mean, escorting people?’ He said, ‘What do you mean, do I have to explain myself? Are you a child? Okay, okay, I just have to be blunt with you. You will be a prostitute.’
“I said, ‘Are you sure? Is there not something else, like teaching, or child-minding?’ He said, ‘No, no, no, you owe us a lot of money.’ I asked about the money my mother had paid, and he said, ‘No, it was for your ticket.’
“I had come with someone’s passport. You know, when you are desperate to leave, you just have to do anything. He said, ‘You just have to work and pay it back. I said, ‘No, I’m not going to do that. But he said, ‘You have no choice, you have to do what you are told.’
The first time I argued with the boss, who we had to call uncle, he was a very deadly looking human being. He knew I wasn’t going to accept what they wanted, unless they used force on me. So that first week, he beckoned me to come downstairs. I saw two huge guests, very big, they wore black and glasses, those guys, they held me down and they were whacking my mouth. I was scared for my life. I swore to pay their money. I swore never to run.
“After the incident, I went up to my room and was crying. Another woman who worked there came to knock on my door. I said, ‘I don’t want to be sleeping with strangers, I don’t think I can.’ I was saying, ‘I want to go, I want to run.’ I don’t know if she was lying, or trying to scare me, she said that someone had tried to run, and these guys shot her. That was the end of it, I thought I don’t want to lose my life.
“When the first customer came I said, ‘I don’t want you near me.’ It was someone I didn’t know and I don’t want to sleep with a total stranger. So I sent him away. Uncle came upstairs and said, ‘If you play with me, I’ll play with you.’ I knew what that meant, because my friend had told me about him killing someone. That guy was my nightmare.
“The same man came back the next day. He knew I didn’t want to. He said, ‘Don’t worry, you’ll get used to it.’
“I’m a prayerful person, I kept telling God that this is not me. The men would sometimes try to talk, I didn’t want to talk to people like that. I’m not interested. I saw them as evil.
“I grew up in a little city, with my mum, and dad, and older sister. And my parents were very supportive of my sister and I going to school. I went to university and studied maths education, as I wanted to be a teacher. I was very young when I got married, and he was my first love. We had lots of problems, it was always, fight, fight, fight. He was always beating me, so the last time I said, I’m not going back. I found myself in hospital for three days. It was bad, I had to run from my husband. I said, mum, I have to go abroad. I just want to leave the country. That is how I found myself here in England. I was thinking I was coming here for a better life, a new life. I didn’t know what would happen.
“But I will never forget the day I escaped. It was a weekday, I was clearing the house and taking the rubbish out because they had a small gate by the side. I used to look to see where I could run. The security guard would normally follow me outside. I used to be nice and friendly to them. So, on that fateful day, I took the bin out. The guards were inside. When I looked, they were not looking, they were talking and smoking, so I just dragged the bin outside and ran. I didn’t know where I was going, I just, ran.
“The month that I had escaped, the man I had met in the country came to my mother and began to threaten her. He said, your daughter has escaped, you have to pay the money. My mother said, if you want money, you have to provide my daughter and I will give you your money. He said, no, I don’t care, even if she’s dead, just pay us the money. So they kept fighting. And they kept harassing my mum, threatening her. She told my uncle what was happening, and so my family knew.
“If there was law and order in my country, my mum would have been able to go to the police. In the UK, there are laws. But in my country, it is money that speaks. The shame and the trauma of what I have been through, my mother was not happy. It led to her premature death. She died at 56. Now I fear returning home, my family has deserted me, my uncle called me a prostitute, they blame me.
“The people who trafficked me have connections everywhere, in the airport, with the police, and if I went home they would know. I am still in hiding, and they are still doing the same thing to other women. I’d like to return to my country and tell my story and be bold. I would tell other women and girls, the grass always looks greener, but don’t be deceived, no matter what promises they make to you. Never let them trick you.