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Sex Worker Discovers Safe Haven and Knowledge at Drop-in Center

“In the beginning, I came to the center at least three times a week. I feel freedom because I’m accepted by my peers.”
– Addis Tenew, 25 years old

When Addis Tenew first left home to work as a commercial sex worker, she never carried a condom and never thought she would be the one putting the condom on a client. “It was taboo and shameful for females to put condoms on man,” she says.

Thus, her health and her fate always lay in a stranger’s hands. If a client decided he didn’t want to use a condom, there was nothing she could do about it.

“I was on my own. I expected the man to do everything just like at home.”

At just 14, her father forced her to marry a 35-year old man. After three years of marriage and a daughter, she left her violent husband on a quest to reach South Africa. Addis didn’t make it further than Dilla, Ethiopia, 500 kilometers south of Addis Ababa.

In 2010, she was working at a hotel when a friend told her about a drop-in center for commercial sex workers in Dilla. Her friend—a peer educator for the EngenderHealth’s Most At-Risk Populations (MARPS) program—convinced Addis to join a peer group and take advantage of the drop-in center.

“In the beginning, I came at least three times a week to the center. I feel freedom here because I’m accepted by my peers for who I am,” she explains.

In the drop-in center, Addis discussed her health concerns with the center’s counselor and learned about the referral system provided free health services throughout the city. In addition, the drop-in center became a home away from home and she could cook meals, rest, watch TV, DVDs and gather with her colleagues around the Ethiopian coffee ceremony to discuss their lives.

“We have a movie evening as well as coffee dates every week. Sometimes when you leave a hotel early in the morning, it’s safer to go to the drop-in center than walk all the way home.”

Every Friday, Addis and her peer group meets to discuss issues about condom use, HIV prevention and personal experiences. After finishing the eight peer education sessions, Addis was selected as a peer educator, recruited ten commercial sex workers and started her own group.

Today, she has two peer education groups that meet once a week in the drop-in center. Thanks to the MARPs project and the support of her peers, she has since abandoned the life of a commercial sex worker and started her own business selling coffee and tea from her home. Nonetheless, she continues in her role as a peer educator mentoring other girls working in Dilla.

“When my peers have a potential client, the first negotiation point is using a condom. Once that has been established, they talk about the price,” she says.

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