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Reaching Ethiopia’s Most Vulnerable

A Staff Profile of Berhanu Teshome

Every Sunday, Berhanu Teshome cooks lunch for his family, who live in Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia. The loving father of three prepares his favorite dish, kitfro, a chopped blend of beef, butter, and mitmita (hot peppers), and he spends the rest of his weekend watching movies and reading stories at home with his wife and daughters.

Teshome is a champion in his community, who is not afraid to push the boundaries of societal expectations. In fact, breaking down harmful gender norms and encouraging responsible living is precisely what Teshome dedicates his life to doing. Every day at work, the Ethiopia native reaches out to young men and boys, urging them to abandon their high-risk behaviors, promote gender equality and health, and become strong partners in preventing the spread of HIV.

Teshome is a senior program officer in EngenderHealth’s MARPs Project (which stands for “most-at-risk populations”), a comprehensive HIV prevention initiative aimed at preventing HIV among vulnerable and marginalized populations in Ethiopia’s urban centers. The program reaches out to adults and young people who engage in transactional sex, including commercial sex workers. The program also focuses on restaurant owners and employees, as well as health providers who offer HIV services to these vulnerable populations.

The MARPs Project is one of only a few comprehensive HIV prevention projects that focus especially on these groups. In addition to being marginalized in society, commercial sex workers face stigma and discrimination that prevent them from getting tested or seeking treatment or information about HIV. But by reaching out and offering social and economic support—through access to information, mobile testing, condoms, counseling, workshops, peer education, treatment, life skills training, income generation opportunities, and care—the MARPs Project encourages them to seek help.

Teshome’s unique role in the MARPs Project involves reaching out to 15–24-year-old men and boys, many of whom may engage in transactional sex as clients, as well as men who have sex with men.

“Commercial sex workers are the most vulnerable or at risk, but it is equally important to work with their potential customers, especially young men, venue owners, and other segments of the population like taxi drivers, café workers, etc.,” Teshome said. “They are the bridging population that should be addressed equally with commercial sex workers.”

Teshome uses an EngenderHealth-developed approach, “Men As Partners” (MAP), which leverages the potential of men and boys to play constructive roles in preventing gender-based violence and the spread of HIV. Through participatory workshops, discussions, and training curricula, Teshome helps to deconstruct harmful male gender norms and encourages participants to make positive behavioral changes that promote gender equality and health.

One young man Teshome has seen change through his work is Washihun Takele, a 22-year-old from Addis Ababa, whom the project trained as a peer educator. Takele says he used to smoke, drink, and party with his friends—behaviors that put him at greater risk of contracting HIV. He would also often argue with his sister about not doing his share of the household chores.

In the last year, however, Takele experienced a change of heart toward his sister, along with other aspects of his life that have made him and those around him more vulnerable to HIV. What turned the tide for Takele was the decision to participate in EngenderHealth’s MARPs peer education program targeting young men engaged in transactional sex, based on the MAP approach.

“Before involving myself in MAP group discussions, I had a completely distorted view of the roles between men and women,” Takele said. “In order to get pleasure during off-work times, I used to chew chat and smoke cigarettes. In the evenings, joining my friends to have a drink was also my habit. Besides being unable to save money, these behaviors made me vulnerable to HIV and drug addiction.”

Today, Takele opts to spend his free time educating his peers instead of taking drugs and alcohol. He has also begun sharing household chores with his sister, recognizing gender equality as an important factor in preventing HIV.

Teshome sees the fruits of his labor every day in hundreds of young men like Takele. These MAP discussions allow participants to talk with their peers, freely and without any fear, about gender equality and social norms and their impact on the spread of HIV. The conversation often extends to open discussions with parents and friends, allowing the broader community to acknowledge the importance of these issues.

“I’m trying to reach my close friends who have unhealthy habits,” Takele said. “I talk to them to follow my decision in getting rid of bad habits and attitudes. I encourage them to come to the youth club and spend their time in discussions, theater, and music.”

Through this work, Teshome and the rest of the MARPs team educates members of vulnerable groups and improves their access to the comprehensive HIV information and services they need to protect themselves and one another.

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