Attention Gap

The Attention Gap

COVID-19 Interventions Support has Left Commercial Sex Workers Behind

Commercial sex workers make up one of the most stigmatized group of people outcast by society. With the advent of COVID-19 in Ethiopia and the subsequent strains on normal social interactions, commercial sex workers have been forced to refrain from sexual engagements with their clients. The latter have also quit visiting sex workers. The situation has left the commercial sex workers with quite a predicament as their dried income makes it hard for them to pay for food and rent while breaching social distancing rules could jeopardize their health as well as those around them. EBR’s Kiya Ali looks into the matter.

Lily Habte, name changed upon her request, is a 34 year old woman and a mother of two. She came to Addis Ababa 12 years ago with hopes of supporting her mother and four of her siblings by working as a house maid. Things went according to plan for the first seven months as she worked as a house maid during that time. However, her experience through those months showed her that her expectations were a bit flawed. “Although I strived to make my employer happy, they were never satisfied. They insulted me and even physically attacked me sometimes under various pretexts. In short, they didn’t consider me a human,” Lily recalls.

She also starved at times as not enough food was apportioned to her. “They deduct my salary without enough reason. They mistreated me a lot,” she added. Finally, when the abuse got to a point where she could not tolerate anymore, she left her employers and got employed in another house. However, her new job proved to be worse. “My employer’s husband started to sexually harass me and later beat me as I refused to sleep with him,” she stated.

She remarked that being treated as a sub-human and refusal to tolerate abuse forced her to consider commercial sex work as an alternative means of livelihood. “I didn’t have access to education. So, I couldn’t compete in the labor force for some other jobs,” she stated. Lily has been a commercial sex worker for the past nine years. She hasn’t managed to save enough money to improve her life and those of her two children.

Already a life of meager financial resources, the advent of the Coronavirus in Ethiopia has heralded a new low to commercial sex workers. There are more than 100 commercial sex workers around ‘Doro Manekia’. These women are in deep problem as the long interruption of their source of income because of the pandemic has rendered them unable to eat even once a day. On top of their problems, the sad reality that some members of the community blame them for spreading the virus has made it harder for them to access support. “Under normal circumstances, these women are stigmatized, discriminated and blamed for spreading HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases. Violence from their clients who often demand lower rates and attack them if they refuse is another hardship they face. They constantly fight these challenges to raise their children with the money they get from commercial sex work. With the pandemic, the commercial sex workers as well as their clients are scared of the virus and prefer to stay at home whenever possible,” explained Melat Nigussie, a fund raising organizer to support commercial sex workers around Doro Manekia.

Immediately after the emergence of COVID-19 in Ethiopia, some landlords forced these women out of their rental houses. “As a result, some of the women have become homeless. However, such measures have stopped after the government prohibited eviction from rental homes with legal ramifications on the line for landlords who would not abide. Being unable to cover food expenses and rent are some of the other problems they are facing. So, they are starving along with their children,” Melat stated.

The effect of the discrimination and stigma faced by the women is not limited to short term disappointment. It will also have long term psychological impact. “If these women are discriminated against constantly, their emotion will be affected. As a result, they will display fear, anxiety, shame, guilt and anger. In more chronic cases, they will experience mental health problems such as depression,” elaborated George Yehayes, a clinical psychologist. In addition, he noted, they will lose their self-esteem and intrinsic value. “Although the discrimination and stigma towards commercial sex workers is as old as the existence of the means of livelihood, the recent proposal by the Addis Ababa city administration to treat commercial sex as a criminal activity has exacerbated the problem.

Though the draft is not ratified yet, the move has created bias among the society,” said Seble Asefa, a legal consultant and lawyer at Ethiopian Women Lawyers Association.

Melat, on the other hand, stated that most of commercial sex workers have children. Before the advent of COVID-19 in Ethiopia, their children benefited from the school feeding program. However, the service has been disrupted as schools are closed because of the pandemic. To make matters worse, activities intended to support people who have been economically affected by the pandemic and those in extreme poverty do not include these group of women. “Almost all projects neglect these women though they are hit hard by the pandemic. If these people don’t get the required support, they may resort to criminal activities for the sake of survival,” Melat stated.

Three months after the first case of COVID-19 was reported in Africa, health professionals and experts express their fear that the pandemic might overwhelm the continent. Similarly, the World Health Organization (WHO) projects that at least 190,000 people are likely to contract the virus. The report also warns that if containment measurements fail, then 44 million others are at risk of infection within a year. To avoid such risk and halt the spread of the Coronavirus pandemic, almost all African countries have taken various measures that include partial and full lockdown, movement restrictions, school closures, stay at home orders, declaration of state of emergency, among others. Ethiopia has also declared a state of emergency, closed schools and ordered transport service providers to reduce the number of people they carry by half. In addition, physical distancing is one of the effective methods that are advised by health workers to contain the spread of the coronavirus pandemic.

The national and individual cautionary measures against the pandemic fend off interest from the clients of commercial sex workers who have to practice those measures as well. With the pandemic only picking up its momentum in Ethiopia, the plight of commercial sex workers needs urgent response. If the pandemic is going to be around for quite some time, the problem could become more severe and force commercial sex workers to desperately look for clients as a coping mechanism despite the obvious dangers.

Cognizant of the exclusion of commercial sex workers from support schemes for COVID-19 affected social groups, the Ministry of Women, Children and Youth (MoWCY) Affairs has included them in the second round support program it facilitates. After the Ministry finalizes collecting financial and material resources from the society, investors, volunteers and other parts of the community, they are planning to support these women. “But since addressing all of them would be difficult considering the amount of resources at the MoWCY’s disposal, only those women who are in deep problem and don’t have any alternative to survive will be given priority,” noted Adinew Abera, Public Relations Head of the MoWCY Affairs. He further stated that ETB17 million has been collected and given to regional states by the federal office of the MoWCY with the purpose of supporting economically disadvantaged sections of society. “Although it is the mandate of regional offices to identify those that need to be supported, MoWCY believes that women engaged in commercial sex work would be included in the support programs,” Adinew pointed out.

Such big schemes by governmental offices are going to take quite a time to materialize. In the meantime, individual initiatives and charities by non-governmental organizations would play a vital role in containing the escalation of the existing problem. A case in point about individual initiatives is the ETB70,000 Melat managed to collect within a week through social media activism. Although the amount may not cover the expenses of the women affected for a long period of time, the will to act on one’s concern over the issue sets a wonderful example to all. “If the activities are not done sustainably at an organizational level, it won’t be long lasting. What we are doing may cover rent for a month and some essential living expenses like food. But through time, the motivation and commitment of volunteers and people who are contributing money might fade away. So, the government should find a way to support these women and empower them to engage in another economic activity,” Melat underscored.

Adinew, on the other hand, accused NGOs working on women of lacking commitment. “Instead of supporting the women in need, NGOs benefit themselves in the name of these women,” he remarked. Towards solving this problem, explained Adinew, MoWCY Affairs is discussing the issue with a variety of NGOs and has prepared a memorandum of understating to be signed by them. He also expressed his hope that the approach will reduce the problem.

If the problems of these women are not solved, the spillover effect will affect the society. “If a person is starved, stigmatized by society and not included in the activities that are intended to support economically disadvantaged groups of the community, they would be involved in criminal activities. This would in turn affect the society,” Melat noted.

There are various push factors for women to be engaged in commercial sex work. Various researches state that poverty is the leading push factor especially in developing countries. “Most of the time, women are forced to engage in sex work for various reasons including: poverty, political unrest, harmful traditional practices like early marriage, being an orphan, losing a husband and lack of formal education. Human trafficking from rural to urban areas that leads them to sexual exploitation is another factor,” elucidated Seble from the Ethiopian Women Lawyers Association.

Domestic violence is additional factor Seble pointed out. Violence against women is highly prevalent around the world. WHO data show that globally, 1 in 3 women have experienced at least one type of gender based violence among physical, sexual, psychological and economic violence in their lifetime. “Yet the biggest problem is related with gender imbalance. For centuries, the patriarchy system has hindered women empowerment. Hence, the long run solution is to implement a policy that ensures gender balance and empowers women based on the principle of equity. In the short term though, society should support the women engaged in commercial sex work and help them survive this trying time as no one should be left behind,” Seble concludes.EBR

9th Year • August 1 – 15 2020 • No. 89

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