Lydia Getachew, 22, has been a sex worker in Addis Ababa for the past six years. Risking her life every day waiting on the city streets for clients is the only means she can turn to in order to earn money for a living.
Having decided to leave her home, she traveled many miles to the bright lights of the Ethiopian capital.
"I was 17 when I first started sex work. I have always been ashamed of what I am doing. It’s really unpleasant work but left with no choice, that is what I did,” says Lydia. “Pay was very low and yet I had to send money home to support my family back in my village. I had very little money for my own survival.”
One day, employees from MSF Belgium, an international, independent medical humanitarian organization, met her on the streets.
This chance meeting offered Lydia a way out to start her own business. Without a moment’s hesitation, she grabbed the opportunity.
First, the organization provided her and other former sex workers with awareness of safe-sex training and then consulted with them on how to start a small business.
“After the training, I started to gain hope little by little,” says Lydia. As a sex worker, she has beaten herself and saw friends seriously hurt and even killed.
One woman was slaughtered a few years ago. Another one got stabbed recently, she told Addis Zeybe.
"Sex workers don't talk freely about their job because it's a taboo. But when they find such helping hands, they tell their stories.”
With the initial 15,000 birr she got from MSF Belgium humanitarians, she opened a coffee shop around Sidist Kilo. She is now selling coffee in a small shop under their supervision.
According to Tesfalem Getahun, a country director of MSF Belgium humanitarians, the organization has run an exit scheme for sex workers and a program on HIV/STI for sex workers.
“The number of beneficiaries in our organizations is low considering the number of sex workers in the city. We have 20,000 sex workers under our ‘sisters’ self-help project.” he told Addis Zeybe.
“Some groups of women are running a shop and a restaurant under our supervision. We are working to make all women be beneficiaries of the project," he added.
Over time, with the growth of Addis Ababa, the number of hotels, bars, restaurants, and other eating and drinking establishments, the number of sex workers has increased markedly. These establishments have become the primary sites where clients meet sex workers.
Commercial sex workers are exposed to numerous adverse conditions such as poor living conditions/housing, social stigma, and sexually transmitted infections, including HIV.
Another woman, Ameya Kedir, 21, left her family and Hagerehiwot, which is 100km away from the capital, for the first time in 2018 to help herself and her families who are living in poor conditions.
However, things do not turn out as she expected. After struggling to secure a job for about two months, one day she found herself on a street as a sex worker.
“I was not that wise to protect myself from sexually transmitted diseases, as most of the clients influenced me, safe sex was unimaginable,” she said.
But after getting training from the Pro Pride Ethiopia, a local NGO, she said she now takes steps to protect herself.
“I became interested in reproductive health education after I acquired the mentor by Pro Pride and I am practicing them now,” she said.
Misale Tigistu, Project officer of Pro Pride, said of their work: "We provide various services to the Kebele communities in general. Although sex workers were not targeted specifically, they were beneficiaries of these services because many sex workers were present in the community.”
In a project implemented by Pro Pride, 5,000 sex workers were provided with free showers and training on issues such as reproductive health, STIs, and HIV/AIDS.
“Since it is difficult for us to give them jobs or other options we rely on informing them how to safely do their work," says Misale.
Commercial sex workers have always been in Ethiopia. Some sources associate the beginnings of commercial sex with the movement of kings, nobles, and warlords, the establishment of cities, and the development of trading.
Subsequently, towns and government offices became centers for the migration of people, particularly females from rural areas. Initially, the migrant females lived in local beverages ('Tella' or 'Araki') houses where they helped the owners to prepare local beverages, worked as waitresses, and/or entertained the customers; eventually, many of them became commercial sex workers.
Even though sex workers are recognized as a very high-risk group for HIV infection and transmission, there has been little effort by either government organizations or some NGOs to alleviate the problem among this target population.
However, many argue that there are very few institutions that directly target sex workers for behavior change and empowerment activities. In Ethiopia, partners in the response to sexually transmitted disease and reproductive health need to give special attention to this target population.