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Courageous Mentor Teaches HIV Prevention to Sex Worker Support Group

“Nobody from my group will have sex without a condom, and everybody always looks at the expiration dates.”
– Alem Miheretu, 25 years old

Ten years ago, the village of Doge had no middle school and no high school.  When Alem Miheretu reached the fifth grade, her education was considered complete.  Her mother and father received the same education, nothing more was expected.

Located 50 kilometers from Axum, a small city in the Northern Ethiopia, Doge is home to dozens of families dedicated to subsistence farming.  When she was 20 years old, Alem had heard about life in the city and wanted an escape to carrying water, gathering firewood and preparing injera, a local flat bread.

“I ran away from home with nothing,” she explains. “But I knew I would find opportunities that don’t exist in Doge.”

She worked as a house maid and waitress for 1.5 years, saving 2500 birr ($150 USD).  With her savings, she opened a local drink house and became a commercial sex worker in order to reach her next goal.

“I bought a fridge, sofa and TV. I wasn’t planning on being a sex worker, but I needed the money.”

In early 2011, an Axum-based EngenderHealth outreach worker approached Alem about the Most at-Risk Populations (MARPs) program.  “He came into my drink house, sat down and taught me about HIV and sexually transmitted infections.”

MARPs then trained Alem as a peer-educator and to spread prevention knowledge to other commercial sex workers.  Today, Alem has a network of 10 sex workers who look to her for advice and to each other for psychological support.

“Nobody from my group will have sex without a condom, and everybody always looks at the expiration dates,” she explains.

Group members also contribute money to a savings fund.  Within a year, the group hopes to have enough to start an injera-vending business at the local university.

Alem plans to quit the sex industry and open a restaurant next year.  “I need to have the necessary capital to start a real business.  The sex industry taught me how business works, but I wouldn’t recommend it to other women."

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