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Sex Worker Leader Makes a Difference in the Lives of her Colleagues

“As a sex worker you think you know everything about condoms, but when you read the MARPs manual, there is new information that we never think about.”
– Belaynesh Debaleke, 21 years old

Every February Belaynesh anxiously waits for rural coffee farmers to descend upon Dilla—the largest city in the Southern Ethiopian region of Gedeyo—to spend money on cheap liquor and sex.

For a couple months, drunken farmers flock to Dilla’s hotels where waitresses offer more than just beer and cocktails. At Hotel Black, Belaynesh prepares herself for the ensuing negotiation with the farmers. The high season is important for Belaynesh to pay rent, school fees and other expenses.

“Since they all have money, it’s easy to get a better price,” she explains.

Belaynesh started working as a sex worker three years ago. Her father passed away when she was a little girl and she relied on her three older brothers. When she completed the tenth grade, she needed more income than they could provide.

“My brothers could barely support my mother at home, and I wanted to be like my friends,” she justifies.

When she first joined a local hotel, she had no negotiating skills and was terrified of the idea of sleeping with a random man. At first she lived in a room with ten commercial sex workers sharing beds when they were not sleeping with clients.

Belaynesh moved along Dilla’s string of hotels looking for a decent owner who would protect her and her colleagues in dangerous situations. Then one day she saw some sex workers going into a compound near her home, she was curious and went to see.

Inside, she found the EngenderHealth Most at-Risk Populations (MARPs) drop-in center, a sort of safe house for sex workers in Dilla. The drop-in center—which was established in 2009—provides various services including HIV/STI counseling and referral and gives sex workers a place to rest, cook, shower and meet to discuss everything from unruly customers to beauty tips and hairstyles.

“Dilla is a zonal town and many women end up here because they know the customers will arrive. The rural women living in the area migrate to Dilla to work as house servants but end up as sex workers,” explains Wendemagegn Makebo, MARPs Field Officer in Dilla.

In late 2010, Belaynesh joined a peer education group and began the courses about HIV prevention, condom use, sexually transmitted diseases, among other topics with a group of ten sex workers.

“As a sex worker you think you know everything about condoms, but when you read the MARPs manual, there is new information that we never think about,” she says. “The discussions are important to allow us to share our experiences together.”

Belaynesh can’t talk about her work with her family, neighbors or any other people for that matter. Due to discrimination and stigma, commercial sex workers have few outlets for talking out their problems and issues.

The MARPs peer education program made Belaynesh a peer leader and she began recruiting girls to attend the discussions. Each group is formed with ten sex workers and one peer leader. After going through the sessions, they start a savings fund and open a bank account.

As a peer educator, Belaynesh has reached over 40 commercial sex workers in Dilla, and in early 2012, she began organizing her fifth peer group.

Since MARPs started in 2009, over 30 peer educators have influenced the lives of more than 580 commercial sex workers living in Dilla.

Belaynesh continues to work as a sex worker while she receives vocational training at a local beauty school. In May 2012 she will finish her courses and with her savings open her own beauty salon in Dilla. Once this happens, she looks forward to leaving commercial sex work behind.

“We discuss stopping and leaving it behind. Many promise to stop, but it’s difficult to stop. My peers sometimes ask me why I go to school. I say it’s because I care and soon you will see me working at my own salon,” she says proudly.

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