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Poverty forcing girls into risky sex work

[Mozambique] Alcohol bars and commercial sex spread HIV/AIDS. Mercedes Sayagues/PlusNews
Sex workers generally operate in Addis's bars and clubs
The nightclubs of the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, reveal a thriving sex industry, in which thousands of skimpily dressed young women trade sexual favours for cash to survive, putting them at risk of contracting HIV and spreading the disease.

Extreme poverty has forced many girls into the sex trade. Helen Chane (not her real name), a grade 10 student aged 17, became a commercial sex worker after her parents died from AIDS-related illnesses about a year ago.

"I support my grandmother and sister; I sleep with students during the day and I have customers that I find through brokers at night," she said. "I do not need to go to the street, the brokers bring them to me."

Sex work in Addis is usually linked to establishments such as restaurants, bars, hotels and nightclubs frequented by wealthy expatriates or local businessmen, but the city also has residential houses that function as unlicensed brothels.

According to a 2002 census in Addis by the American healthcare agency, Family Health International (FHI), 8,134 establishment-based sex workers were identified in the capital, 60 percent of whom were aged between 15 and 24.

Clients are increasingly targeting high school students, domestic workers and even children - the perception is that these groups are less likely to have the HI virus than those openly selling sex.

FHI found that condom use by sex workers is very high. In 2005, the state-run Addis Ababa HIV/AIDS Prevention and Control Office launched a condom campaign dubbed 'Wise UP' - with sex workers as the primary targets - to break the silence and promote condom use as a way of preventing HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted infections.

But clients are often reluctant to use condoms, putting sex workers at a significant risk. According to the FHI study, HIV prevalence among urban sex workers is over 20 percent and as high as 50 percent in some towns.

Abebech Assfaw, (not her real name), 22, came to Addis Ababa after difficulties in her marriage. She told IRIN PlusNews that she tried to use a condom during every sexual encounter, but clients often refused and some even tried to trick her.

"A customer once told me that he uses three condoms at a time and I agreed; then he turned off the light and cut the tips off the condoms," she said. "I felt something was wrong and turned on the light. I screamed and the police came and saved me."

A safer living

Few agencies provide sex workers with HIV/AIDS education, care and support, but Medico Socio Development Assistance for Ethiopia (MSDA), a local nongovernmental organisation, is trying to give them the opportunity to earn a safer, legitimate living by offering training in catering, hotel management and hair dressing, and gives them capital to start a small business.

"There are some sex workers even in their sixties and seventies. They continue to risk their lives because they do not have anything to support themselves," said Iyasu Haile Selassie, MSDA's executive director.

Almost half of Ethiopia's 71 million people survive on less than US$1 a day, and the government estimates that some 1.2 million people are living with the HI virus. FHI's study found a link between poverty and sex work, with most sex workers saying they started doing it for economic reasons.

MSDA is currently training 72 commercial sex workers and 120 sex workers' mothers. "We give training in income-generating activities to their mothers too, because if the mothers do not have money to support themselves they will force their daughters to go back to their previous life as sex workers, or they will practice prostitution themselves," Iyasu said.

Yeshimebet Mekuria (not her real name), 16, is learning to be a hairdresser. She refused to get married and escaped from her rural home to Addis, where she worked as a domestic servant until a friend convinced her that she could earn a much better living by having sex with men for money.

Now she works in a bar and has to give half her earnings to the owner, leaving her with almost nothing. The FHI study found that sex workers were exploited by establishment owners, receiving low salaries or working without pay as waitresses during the day. She hopes hair dressing will be her way out of the seedy bar.

"I will quit the sex work as soon as I complete my training," Yeshimebet said.


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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