ROME – Once a victim of human trafficking and today an activist for the defense of human dignity, a young Nigerian woman was recognized by the U.S. Department of State on Thursday for her efforts in the fight against modern-day slavery.

Blessing Okoedion acknowledged being “very, very emotional” ahead of receiving the “TIP Report Hero Acting to End Modern Slavery Award” in a phone interview with Crux.

The Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report has been released in June of every year since 2011, offering an assessment of nation’s efforts to combat human trafficking. To date, the State Department has honored 110 “individuals around the world who have devoted their lives to the fight against human trafficking,” and Okoedion is the newest recipient.

“The word hero is a proper call to do more and also in a sense an encouragement, encouraging me and us involved in the anti-human trafficking movement that there are people who are behind them and they are not just alone,” Okoedion said.

The TIP report project also aims at promoting and sharing the individual stories of award winners in order to galvanize activism against human trafficking across the globe. Okoedion’s story, which she details in her 2017 book, The Courage of Freedom: A Woman Escaped from the Hell of Trafficking, co-written with Italian journalist Anna Pozzi, echoes that of many young women around the world who are conned into leaving their homes and forced into prostitution.

A graduate in computer science living in Benin City, Nigeria, Okoedion was tricked by a religious woman into travelling to Europe for work, only to find once she arrived in Italy in 2013 that the computer shop she was supposed to work in did not exist. The young girl was thrown onto the streets and forced into prostitution, from which she rebelled and eventually escaped thanks to the Orsuline religious sisters who took her to Casa Rut, a safehouse in the southern Italian town of Caserta.

It was with the sisters, said Okoedion, who is now 31, that she began to find her dignity, voice and self-respect. She credits Orsuline Sister Rita Giaretta, founder of Casa Rut with helping her escape.

“She doesn’t just reintegrate you in society, but she also gives you a voice,” Okoedion said about the nun. Ever since, she has been working to help others who have been caught in the global spider web of human trafficking.

Recent data from the International Organization for Migration (IOM) shows that in 2016 over 11,000 Nigerian women, most of them underage, have been brought to Italy by traffickers to work in the sex trade, which earns up to $32 billion a year in the country.

These numbers are “discouraging,” Okoedion said, given that the Orsuline nuns have been working for over 20 years towards putting a halt to this practice, and Nigeria has also added anti-trafficking policies. Knowing that for every woman forced into trafficking another is being saved and helped to regain her dignity is a source of encouragement for the activist.

“This is how I endure,” she said.

Everybody “has to get involved,” Okoedion said with passion, “because every human being has a right to freedom. These people should not be denied this freedom, they should not be denied [the right] to live the life that God has meant for them. We have to fight for them.”

She spoke similar words in an audience with Pope Francis in May, when she asked the pope how she can help youth become conscious of this “crime against humanity,” underlining the fact that many clients, and even traffickers, are Catholics.

Francis called those who take part in “torturing a woman” criminals, and he invited youth to reject this mentality.

“I ask for forgiveness for all the Catholics who commit this criminal act,” the pope said.

“The response that Pope Francis gave was very encouraging in speaking to youth especially,” Okoedion said. “We, the leaders of tomorrow, not just young people but also those coming of age, [are called] to make this society a better place.”

Fighting the mentality is just as important as fighting human traffickers, the activist insisted, pointing to the fact that the growing numbers of victims of trafficking respond to an increase in demand.

“We have to work on the culture of demand,” Okoedion said, adding that the next step is “changing the mentality, that no human should be seen as property, no human should be seen as something that you can just buy, use and throw away.”

Too often, the TIP award winner said, people claim that human trafficking is only a government problem, or simply born from corruption. Claiming ignorance is no longer an excuse, she continued, saying that “no one should close their eyes to what is happening right under our noses.”

According to the International Labor Organization (ILO), over 40 million people lived in a condition of modern slavery in 2016, with numbers on the rise. In light of these staggering numbers, Okoedion believes that no one should be exempt from being informed and taking action.

“Everyone should put his or her hands on the desk to fight against human trafficking that is digging deep into our society,” she said.

Her desire is that the TIP Report award will offer hope, especially for trafficked women, that they have a right to freedom and that they don’t need their parents or country’s support to earn their dignity, because “there are many people in the world who are fighting for their freedom.”

“I dedicate this award to many women victims of human trafficking, to survivors. This award is for us all, an encouragement to all of them. [It’s] an encouragement for all those living in fear that it’s possible to get out of the den of human traffickers,” Okoedion said.

As the young Nigerian, deceived into leaving her home and exploited on the streets, prepared to receive the award in Washington, D.C., she was aware of being a model for many others just like her.

“It doesn’t matter the background you come from, we have to be a voice to everybody, so everybody can live in absolute freedom,” she said.