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Long Road of Sex Work Leads to Personal Strength & Advocacy

Betelhem Nigusu, 21, describes her journey from teenage sex worker to peer educator and group leader.

I took my first job as a commercial sex worker in Asela, far enough from my father to ensure he wouldn’t find out. I thought I had to make money on my own and my friends pressured me to join them. I wanted to make some quick money and then go back to school.

Four years later, I was still working as a commercial sex worker and I didn’t know how to get out of that world.

Most girls get a delala, or pimp. He knows when and where to go to find the most customers with the most money. If I charge a customer 200 birr ($12 USD) for sex, then I usually have to pay him half. Delalas always say they are going to take care of you, but really they don’t care.

After 8 months of working in a hotel in Asela, the delala told me about Geda Maitu, a city in the Afar region located on Ethiopia’s main shipping route to the port of Djibouti.

The men in Geda Maitu were horny. I think the heat made them want sex even more. I mainly had sex with drivers and contrabandistas who were smuggling goods into Ethiopia from the port. They were flush with cash and spent their winnings on girls like me in the hotel and bar.

I was making nearly 500 birr per day—the monthly salary for the majority of Ethiopians. So I spent the money on shoes and clothing but mostly on chat, the local stimulant, which is a leafy narcotic grown in Ethiopia. When you chew chat, you also smoke a lot of cigarettes. I paid for a heavy addiction and could no longer work without first chewing chat and then getting drunk.

My delala took me back to Nazareth where my father and his new family were living. My mother died of tuberculosis when I was five years old. Now I can only remember my grandfather taking care of me. Then we moved to Nazareth in central Ethiopia, and my father opened a store. He remarried and had two more children, but my new mother never accepted me as her own.

I couldn’t realize it then, but the delala didn’t care about me. Even when a customer hit me, the delala did nothing. Sex workers in Ethiopia suffer physical abuse three or four times a month, and nobody protects us. The police do nothing because prostitution is illegal and customers are never held accountable for their actions.

The delala took me from place to place, using me to sleep with drivers and men in bars. One day we drove to another city on the main road and spent five days there. I didn’t earn very much money, so we turned around and went back to Nazareth. Before long, we were back on the road heading to Mekele, in the north of Ethiopia.

In July 2011, Kiros, an outreach social worker, approached me in a bar, and told me about EngenderHealth’s prevention program for Most at-Risk Populations (MARPs) in urban areas in Ethiopia. He told me about a drop-in center where I could go to rest and socialize with other girls without delalas and pressure from hotel owners.

Kiros suggested giving up prostitution, and I thought about it for two months. But I didn’t believe I could give up the drugs and alcohol that had taken control of my life. How would I pay for these things if I no longer had a job, I wondered.

In MARPs, I learned about the risk of HIV/AIDS. I learned proper prevention techniques and most of all I learned that I too had rights and the freedom to live life without a delala controlling who I am. I became a peer-educator and began to urge my friends to give up prostitution. But most of them are addicted to drugs and alcohol and lack the willpower to quit.

To stay in touch with commercial sex workers, the MARPs project hired me as a cleaning lady. Whenever working girls come by the drop-in center, I speak to them about the freedom I enjoy away from selling sex. I only make 550 birr per month, but I feel good and I know that I’m no longer at risk of contracting HIV.

Today I understand the value of myself. Since quitting, I have renewed my relationship with my father. I’m only 21 and ready to tell him stories from my new life. I want to go back to high school, discover new jobs and re-create myself in the image of the person that I lost to life as a prostitute.

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