Prostitutionism: ‘The Oldest Profession’ Taking Root in the Collective Behaviour of the Nation

Almost 100Pct of the women encountered in smaller bars, restaurants and nightclubs of the capital [Addis Ababa] and other towns are prostitutes. Often it’s very hard to distinguish them from ordinary women. The social stigma attached to prostitution in the West is lacking in Ethiopia. Though not exactly respected as a profession, prostitution is considered as a perfectly viable means of making a living. Visiting a prostitute is considered a fairly normal part of a young boy’s adolescence and bachelorhood,” reads the Australian based, Lonely Planet‘s travel guide book on Ethiopia.

Even though promiscuous behaviour is also among the natural trait of manhood in Ethiopia, and even though society came up with different social loopholes to satisfy this urge, it hasn’t developed in to a modern form of ‘cash for sex’ until the five years Italian occupation, at the end of the first quarter of the last century. This new phenomenon of the time even forced some to express their amazement in a poem, which later becomes famous. “Wey Addis Ababa chimchim yalew mender; Ken sayikateru ekif argo mader” which can loosely be translated as “The amazing Addis, the growing city; Where people wake up with a nameless lady”

Through the years, the amazement fed up, as the practice of prostitution reach every corner of the nation. This trend is especially more visible in the last decade, when almost every bar and night club include women that turn tricks, in its menu of services. Following this and the emergence of other forms of prostitution, commercial sex service is leaving its mark on the culture, economy and conscience of the nation.

Kazanchis in Kirkos District used to be the lone famous place in Addis Ababa for its commercial sex venues. For more than a couple of decades, until most of its famous red district was forced to give room for modern real estate developments, joe Addis Ababan had to pay a visit to Kazanchis to entertain himself with drinks and more. From ladies standing by street light polls to high class sex workers in bars, Kazanchis was the main place to get commercial sex in all its forms.

But recently, these services have come to every street corner. One need not even have to walk far to get this kind of services anymore. “It is like every bar in the city worth its salt has decided to serve cocktail with a lady siding,” says Eyuel habtu, a bachelor and enthusiast of the city’s night life. Yet there are still hot spots like Chechiniya, Piassa, Saris, Datsun Sefer and others: localities known for the sheer number of establishments and people engaged in the provision of these services.

According to HIV Prevention Package: Marps (Most at Risk Populations) and Vulnerable Groups, a 2011 study published by the Federal HIV/AIDS Prevention and Control Offices (HAPCO), Commercial Sex Workers (CSWs) in Ethiopian context are females who regularly or occasionally trade sex for money in drinking establishments, night clubs, local drinking houses, Khat and Shisha houses, on the street, around military and refugee camps, trade routes, red light districts and at their own homes.

One such CSW EBR approached is Woynishet Mamo (not real name), who claims to be only 23 years old. Woynishet, who lives in a rental house in Akaki Kality District, came from Debre Birhan, Amhara Regional State in 2012. Failed to make it through the 10th grade national exam in 2010, life became very difficult for her and her lone mother. Advised by one of her friends in Addis Ababa, who has been in the commercial sex industry for more than five years, Woynishet was happy to come to the capital as a waitress. Earning a better living and helping her mother in her mind, she started her waitressing debut full of hope.

After working as a waitress for about six months, frustration starts to sink in. Comparing the money her friends in the bar, who turn tricks, make with her, thoughts start to develop in her mind. “Your friends who are already in the business give you the final nudge. They advice me to join them and introduced me to customers they know,” says Woynishet. “The next thing I know, I was one of them.” Almost everyone she knows at the bar shares the same story, according to Woynishet. Now Woynishet makes ETB250 for a one night stand and sees an average of three customers every week.

The main reason that drove her out of her home town: helping her mother is a dream that never materialized. “Occasionally I send her a rooster for holidays,” Woynishet said with a sad face.

The majority of Woynishet’s customers are drivers of taxi and mid-level city buses, as the hotel she works at is near the taxi station around the locality known as Abbo in Akaki Kality District. What rather amazes Woynishet is the new entrants to the list of her customers; university students. “Joining one of the Universities used to be my dream,” Woynishet says. She wonders why a bunch of teenagers who are in the right path of life ever want to visit a commercial sex worker or come to such hotels in the first place.

Number of sex workers like Woynishet, is growing in the city. “Even though it is hard to know the exact number of CSWs in the capital the best estimation of local and international NGOs (Non Governmental Organizations) is that there are well more than 15 thousand CSWs in Addis Ababa,” says Engidawork Lemma, acting regional manager at Save Your Generation Ethiopia (SYGE), a local NGO that has implemented a series of projects on CSWs. This is one commercial sex worker for every 60 adult male Addis Ababan.

A 2002 study conducted by Family Health International (FHI), entitled Mapping and Census of Female Sex Workers in Addis Ababa states that a total of 3,460 establishments in the City gave commercial sex services. Other significant number of sex workers were available at 1,453 red light houses. Tella and Arake (local beer and hard alcohol) selling houses, cafes, pastry shops and others were also among the establishments with one or other form of sex workers.

The FHI study states that there were about 8,134 sex workers by the time it was conducted. Comparing this with present estimates, the number has almost doubled in a decade.

HAPCO in its publication said, “The size of the sex worker population in Ethiopia is not known. However, evidences suggest that sex work in Ethiopia is undergoing demographic and behavioural change. “The number of sex workers is growing; much younger girls are joining the trade, and the average number of client they are seeing is increasing.”

FHI’s study further classifies sex work as direct or open and indirect female sex workers. Direct female sex workers (FSW) are typically women who officially recognize themselves as sex workers and earn their living by selling sex. Indirect FSW are women for whom sex work is not the first source of income. They may work as waitresses, hairdressers, tailors, masseuses in massage parlours, street vendors, or beer promotion girls and supplement their income by selling sex on the side on a regular basis or occasionally. They do not consider themselves as sex workers and often work outside of known venues for sex work. Therefore, they are even more difficult to reach than women known as direct sex workers. As a consequence, the absolute size of the FSW population remains largely unknown.

FHI’s study includes three groups of women: street based sex workers, establishment based FSW working in hotels, bars, restaurants, red light houses, Cafes, and women working as waitresses in the same establishments. Among the waitresses 40–45Pct admitted to being involved in sex work besides their official job. In Addis Ababa and Adama, 35Pct and 30Pct of the FSW were considered as indirect FSW. The majority of FSW were aged 25–29 years old.

In Addis Ababa, commercial sex takes place in bars and hotels; massage parlours; brothels; on streets; hotels, pastry shops and small establishments that sell Arake and Khat . There are also semi red light districts in certain slums, commonly referred to as DC (Dirty Corner) villages. And it is increasing.

There can be some logical explanation for this explosion of commercial sex services in Ethiopia. A number of factors could make women join the commercial sex industry, according to Yeraswork Admassu (PhD), an associate professor of Sociology at Addis Ababa University. These factors can be divided as push and pull factors.

One of the pushing cultural factors is the domination of males. “There are no equal means of making a living for both genders in a male dominated society like Ethiopia,” says Yeraswork. When females lose or are abandoned by their husbands, they are not entitled to their share of properties: land and house. Thus, they prefer to leave their area of residence and fled to a place where they are not known, so that they could make a living.

Another push factor for young girls is unwanted pregnancy out of wedlock. Sexual abuses could also push the victims to the life of commercial sex work, according to Yeraswork.

The pulling side is dominated by economic reasons. Poor rural girls may not have the sufficient financial resource to survive in cities, hence, commercial sex. The increasing demand of men for commercial sex also contributes. Like other economic activities in the nation, higher income has boosted demand in the sector. “There is a growing number of bachelors who cannot afford to get married that seek services of CSWs,” says Yeraswork. More unmarried people mean more demand for commercial sex services.

Urbanization and camp like living styles are also the other factors to be blamed for the growing number of commercial sex practices in the country. Urbanization causes movement of people from one place to another, which in turn causes destabilization of marriages and families. Others are living in camps and hostels due to the nature of their jobs apart from their marriages, hence, high chance for going to prostitutes.

Not many attempts, if not none, have been made by the government to prevent women from entering the industry and take care of those that are already in the industry. The Ministry of Women, Children and Youth Affairs, whose officials were not available for comment, does not have any major department or project engaged with CSWs. The same is true for Addis Ababa Women Association, whose officials declined to comment on the matter as they do not have any active project on CSWs.

The few attempts that are being made are those projects undertaken by NGOs. Most of these projects work on preventing HIV and training CSWs to do other jobs. One such project is Comprehensive HIV Prevention Project, a project managed by SYGE, which will be launched in November, 2013. The ETB3.8 million project which is funded by PSI and USAID project on population services, will be operating in 10 towns in Eastern Oromiya, according to Kefyalew Yismaw, the project manager.

“What is special about this project is that it also aims at providing initial capital for associations of CSWs who are ready to change their professions,” says Engidawork. Most earlier projects were only limited to giving trainings.

“With the new project, we are collaborating with religious institutions to involve preventive measures as well,” Engidawork says.

Poor attempts to prevent young girls from entering the industry should be a priority, according to Yeraswork.

There is a high possibility for the sex industry to turn the country in to a major sex tourists’ destination. Once the country turns into such a place, the industry will involve more organized business people and pimp. “At least up until now it is under the control of the women themselves,” says Yeraswork. The involvement of stronger business people in the industry could further lead to the abuse of women and young children involving a web of human traffickers controlling the operation. And this can lead to serious social problems.

Commercial sex work is illegal in Ethiopia. The country’s criminal law of Article 635 prohibits the act of prostitution and anyone benefiting from it, even though all major establishments do it in the open.

Woynishet thinks the government should ban the practice all together. For her, no other resolution could prevent young girls like her from flooding the industry. Banning does not seem the right solution for academicians. “I don’t think we can ban the practice,” says the sociologist. “If it is banned, people will start practicing it underground. And the practice will end up in the hands of criminals. The way forward should be controlling it; giving it some kind of legal status.” The practice could be legitimate under certain conditions: obtaining license for CSWs, giving them health checkups, limiting the age of women and deciding on commercial sex time and venues upon their distance from schools, residence areas and others, according to the assistant professor.

The way forward for a country with a growing number of CSWs and commercial sex practice should be an issue that policy makers should deliberate on and take action soon. For Woynishet, however, the way forward seems confusing. She does not want to go back to her home town. The only thing that can get her out of this life is getting a better job, which is hard to get. For the time being, however, she has already made contacts to move to one of the hotels around Saris, another sex center in Addis.

Addisu Deresse

EBR Special Contributor


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