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Sex Worker Lands in Drop-in Center, Addicted and Scared

“I was addicted to khat and alcohol. The center helped me stop my addiction and made me realize how much I was spending on substances.”
–Tigist Mesfin, 20 years old

When Tigist Mesfin, 20, fell in love with a Muslim, her family disowned her and her brothers drove her off. Although Muslims and Christians have lived in peace side-by-side for centuries in Ethiopia, intermarriage is another issue, especially for somebody like Tigist, who grew up in the small city of Mieso, in Eastern Ethiopia.

Tigist did what any love struck teenager would do and she ran away. She stole 800 birr ($47 USD) from her parents, dropped out of the seventh grade and followed her boyfriend into the future.

When the money ran out, so did the love.

Alone, Tigist turned to the commercial sex industry for survival. She took her first job thanks to a delala, or a fixer. The delala’s job is to take sex workers to hotels where he essentially sells the girl for as little as 100 birr ($6 USD) or as much as 1000 birr ($60 USD). The hotel owner’s payment for the sex worker automatically becomes the sex worker’s debt. Besides the debt, the sex worker is obligated to work at the hotel for at least one month.

Her first delala brought her to a hotel in the town of Gelemsa where her first client paid her 120 birr. Tigist was not a day over 17 years old.

When he next delala took her to the town of Bale, she started working with a debt of 830 birr, nearly the same amount she stole from her parents a year before.

“The delala can provide benefits. If we have problems with clients, we can call on him to take us to another hotel,” Tigist says.

After six months in Bale, Tigist and a friend move to Kartja, also with a delala. Tigist and her friend each owed 600 birr to the new hotel owner. When her friend disappeared one morning, Tigist was forced to assume her friend’s debt as well. The hotel owner took the girls’ belongings to his house.

“When I saw my future, I saw three months of working everyday just to pay off the hotel,” she says.

One morning after sleeping with a client, Tigist quietly slipped out of the hotel and walked straight to the bus station. With no personal belongings, she hopped on the first bus leaving the station. Once she was on the bus, she asked the driver where it was going: Agere Mariam, another small city on a transit corridor through Southern Ethiopia.

“I was so scared because I didn’t know where I was going. When I arrived I asked for a delala to buy me some clothing and a bag. He helped me and took me to the next hotel.”

In Agere Mariam, Tigist began working on a new 500 birr debt. Both the hotel owner and the clients treated her well, and she paid off her debt in two weeks. After three years of being away from home, she began to miss her parents especially her father.

Six months later she was in Dilla, a city of 200,000 people also located on the main north-south corridor, except this time, she had saved over 1000 birr from the previous city. She and three friends used the money to party, chew khat and enjoy life away from sex work. The money ran out after one month.

After three months in Dilla, a delala took her and 10 other commercial sex workers to Aletawondo, earning 100 birr for each girl from a hotel owner.  Here in Aletawondo, the long road of the teenage commercial sex worker finally ended, but not without a struggle.

Three days after arriving she and some of her friends showed up to the EngenderHealth supported drop-in center. That was June 2011, and Tigist immediately joined a peer-education group. It was the first time that somebody wanted to help commercial sex workers, she thought. 

Kicking an Addiction

During her three years moving from hotel to hotel, Tigist—like many commercial sex workers in Ethiopia—developed a burdensome addiction to both alcohol and khat, a leafy narcotic locally grown and consumed by chewing. The life and work of a sex worker often becomes so onerous that being intoxicated is often the only way to follow a man back to his hotel room.

EngenderHealth established the drop-in center Aletawondo in November 2010 and partnered with local organization Integrated Service for AIDS Prevention and Support (ISAPSO) to help staff the office. The drop-in center’s rules are strict about substance abuse. In addition, women going through the peer education program are encouraged to quit using drugs and alcohol.

“I was addicted to khat and alcohol. The center helped me stop my addiction and made me realize how much I was spending on substances,” she says. “Every day, I was spending at least 100 birr on alcohol, cigarettes and khat.”

Between June and September 2011, Tigist and her friends formed a link with the drop-in center through EngenderHealth’s Most at-Risk Populations (MARPs) program. As a group, the girls and a discussion leader met once a week to talk about health issues like sexually transmitted infections, HIV prevention and safe sex. Most importantly, Tigist had a chance to share her story with peers and hear similar stories. She realized that she wasn’t alone.

“At first, it was not easy to be here, but I was coming two or three times a week even when I wasn’t meeting with my peer group,” she explains.

Shortly after arriving, Tigist also got tested for HIV at the local health clinic for the first time in her life with a referral slip from the drop-in center.  In addition, the drop-in center counselor provides the girls with psychological support.

“From the discussions, I learned to be confident and the right words to negotiate the use of a condom with clients,” she says. “Before MARPs, I never actually put the condom on the clients. I learned to not be ashamed.”

“Through peer education, I learned that there are other, better options for me.”

Business Development

In September 2011, Tigist quit her job as a commercial sex worker. The decision came when the MARPs outreach coordinator helped her peer education group get a small grant from the city’s Department of Women’s Affairs.

The city first trained the group of nine in business development and basic entrepreneurship and in addition gave the each commercial sex workers 3000 birr each to start a cooperative in the form of a restaurant.

The money is part of a grant provided by the Global Fund to the city government to help women at risk find alternative livelihoods. Thanks to the referral from MARPs, Tigist and her colleagues plan to open the restaurant in mid-2012.

Tigist has not seen her family for four years, and her family has no idea where she is currently living or what she is doing. After she gets the restaurant up and running, she hopes to return to visit her father and family.

“I won’t show my face until I have a business that is not commercial sex worker,” she says.

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