A Source of Extra Income for Many is Becoming a Growing Threat in Ethiopia
Prostitution is the practice of engaging in sexual activity in exchange for payment or some benefit. Although the ‘profession’ is as old as human history, it still attracts many, including teenage girls. One fact may surprise a lot – those who engage in the practice are not all economically deprived. Quite a good number of them, in fact, engage in the business to earn extra money necessary to live a ‘luxury’ life. EBR’s Hiwot Salelew explores the issue to offer this report.
Bethlehem Nuru (name changed), 18, is a grade 11 student who is a commercial sex worker. She comes from a middle-income family. Although she was hesitant to talk to EBR, Frehiwot Menegsha, a Medical Counsellor at Geneme Dropping Centre, a centre that provides shelter and food for teenagers like Bethelehem, says many teenage girls use their income from commercial sex work for entertainment and to cover personal expenses.
“When they are asked about where the money comes from, they avoid the question or answer that they get it from their family,” says Frehiwot. Kalkidan, a friend of Bethlehm who claims to be a student, has been in this business already. ,This shows another serious case.
In Ethiopian context, teenage prostitution involves girls from the age of 15 to 22. Previously, poverty is known to be the major factor for the rate of increase in prostitution in developing countries like Ethiopia. However, the history of many teenage girls like Bethelehem tells a different story about the current nature of commercial sex in the country. In addition to poverty, the need for earning extra money, curiosity and ignorance are pushing teenage girls, especially who came from middle-income families, in to commercial sex now.
In Ethiopia, studies indicate that teenage girls are getting involved in commercial sex at a high rate. For instance, a study conducted by USAID in 2009 demonstrates that 71Pct of the sex workers are between 15-24 years.
Another study done by Population Services International (PSI) Ethiopia, a global health organisation, asserts that there are two types of commercial sex workers in Ethiopia; transactional (non-self-identified) and conventional (self-identified) sex workers.
Transactional sex workers engage in the business to earn extra income or to cover their needs that are beyond necessity. Bethelehem belongs to this group. On the other hand, conventional sex workers stay in the business for consecutive years and they consider it as a ‘profession.’
According to Girmachew Mamo (MD), PSI’s Assistant Project Manager, the majority of the commercial sex workers in urban areas like Addis Ababa are categorised as transactional sex workers. “Many high school and university students are becoming transactional sex workers, they [engage in] sex for getting easy money and live a ‘luxurious’ life,” he explains. “But, they don’t consider themselves as sex workers while other people recognise them as ones.” said Girmachew.
Indeed, many young female university students are involved in commercial sex businesses although they prefer not to consider themselves as prostitutes. A cross-sectional study conducted to investigate sexually risk behaviour among undergraduate university students by Tariku Dingeta, lecturer at Department of Public Health in Haramaya University, also communicated at similar findings.
A finding of the study, which used a total of 1,268 students of Haramaya University who were randomly selected and both sexes were equally represented, indicated that close 30Pct of the students had their first sexual encounter at a mean age of 17.5 while about 22.8Pct of the students who previously had sex reported to have had their first sexual encounter after they joined university. Out of the 427 female students who reported to have sex, 123 (29Pct) reported that they had sex with more than one sexual partner. In addition, out of the total number of these female students, 25Pct had sex with non regular partner.
This does not undermine that economic strains force young girls to join the commercial sex business in Ethiopia.
Most of the conventional sex workers come from rural areas mainly to avoid early marriage or in search of a better education, career and future. Among these women, is the eighteen-years-old Mekedes Yirgalem, who came from Gondar in the state of Amhara. She left home when she was 16 years old. She does not know her real father and after her mother died, she was raised by her elder brother. As she grew up, she thought of getting a job and better future. Then, one of her relatives brought her to Addis Ababa. But, life was hard for her in Addis from the beginning. “I was very young and did not know anything about work. My relative wanted me to work for her. But when I failed to do that, she threw me out of her house,” Mekedes told EBR.
Mekedes couldn’t find another job soon since she did not know anyone in Addis Ababa. In one coincidence, she met a girl who convinced her to join the commercial sex business and Mekedes was in no position to refuse. “So, I become a commercial sex worker at the age of sixteen,” she recalls.
Another challenge came in to Mekedes’s life after a year. She encountered an unwanted pregnancy from a guy who later refused to provide support to his child. “He did not want to accept the child as his because I am a sex worker,” she explained. “I tried to convince him to support me in raising our child, but he refused.”
Kidist Frew, 19, is another commercial sex worker who joined the business three months ago. Although it has been few months, she says the business is so bad. It has many terrible influences on her already in such as getting addicted to drugs and alcohols, losing respect from others and getting insulted. “Sometimes there are men who have unusual sexual desires and when we refuse to entertain that, they use their physical power on us. Other times, they don’t want to pay and even try to take our own money,” Kidist told EBR.
These are a few of the problems that commercial sex workers usually experience, according to Frehwiot. She added that “As a counsellor, I have observed several psychological problems on the commercial sex workers as a result of the abuse they experience. They are neglected, insulted, and emotionally, sexually and physically abused.”
“Teenage and young sex workers have low self-esteem and identity crises because they feel neglected and undermined by the society. They are afraid of living a normal life as a result of the nature of their job,” argues Yohanness Woldegiorgis, a programme coordinator in Wise Up Dropping Centre, an institution that provides shelter, medical counselling and [skill development] trainings for commercial sex workers.
In addition to NGOs, the government has a role in addressing the challenges of commercial sex workers especially teenagers. The Information obtained from the Ministry of Women and Children’s Affairs reveals that, Ethiopia ratified the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the Sale of children, Child Prostitution and Child Pornography in 2013. It also ratified the ILO Convention concerning the Prohibition and Immediate Action for the Elimination of the Worst Forms of Child Labour in 1999.
Two years ago, the government announced that it adopted a plan to prevent and eliminate the worst forms of teenage labour, one of which is child prostitution and carried out extensive activities aimed at sensitising the public about the adverse effects of teenage sexual exploitation and prostitution. However, situations on the ground are indicating that the measures are not tantamount to the problems. EBR
5th Year • May 2017 • No. 50