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Peer Educator Leads Sex Worker Social Group and Savings Fund

“All the women are ready to stop this work if they only had better economic opportunities."
– Mareg Lemlem, 24 years old

When Mareg Lemlem was just 12 years old, she had to turn her back on her mother and flee to Ethiopia with her father. Unable to shed their nationality, she and her 10 siblings could no longer stay with their Eritrean mother. The family was unfairly torn in two as a result of the Ethio-Eritrean war.

Before finishing the 9th grade, Mareg was forced to drop out of school to serve drinks in her father’s coffee shop in the city of Adigrat, in Northern Ethiopia.

She married at 18 and had a son. Soon, her new family too began to splinter. After three years of marriage, she left her husband and had to fend for herself and her son, Abraham.

“We didn’t share the same views. He drank too much and slept with other women,” she explains. Ironically, her husband’s behavior led her into the same underworld of transactional sex, cheap hotel rooms and daily alcohol consumption.

After meeting commercial sex workers and hearing about the salaries they were earning, Mareg believed it to be the only choice. She worked in a hotel for two years in the city of Mekele, the capital of the Tigray region.

“The hotel owner was good, but he was not interested in selling soft drinks,” she says half-joking.

Life as a commercial sex worker was not easy even though Mareg earned nearly 1000 birr ($65 USD) per month. “We never knew if the customer was going to be violent or not and we often worked days and nights,” she explains. But the money was enough to pay for her son’s kindergarten classes and house expenses.

Her fate took a positive turn in March 2011 when an outreach social worker from EngenderHealth’s Most at-Risk Population (MARPs) program showed up at the hotel to tell her about the HIV/AIDS prevention project for commercial sex workers.

Mareg learned how to properly use condoms in order to protect herself from HIV and other sexually transmitted infections (STIs), and MARPs trained Mareg as a leader of group discussions with fellow sex workers. Mareg became a peer-educator and embraced the lead role in sharing HIV prevention knowledge with her colleagues and friends.

With ten sex worker friends, she formed a social support group that meets at her house every Saturday to discuss health issues and provide psychological support for one another. Using a Peer Learning Guide designed by and for sex workers in Ethiopia, Mareg takes her peers through the eight topic exercises.

“When we meet, we deal with our lives and talk about future possibilities to end commercial sex work. We reinforce condom use and support each other,” she says. “We use the book for group exercises such as talking about our on-the-job experience.”

Thanks to life skills training, the women’s group started a savings fund. Every week, each woman pays 5 birr into the fund, which is then set aside for small loans, especially for those women no longer working as commercial sex workers, such as Mareg.

In the first six months, the group saved over 1400 birr. When they have enough money, they plan to open a restaurant.

Thanks to the support from MARPs, Mareg and five women from the group have since abandoned the commercial sex industry.

“All the women are ready to stop this work if they only had better economic opportunities,” she says.

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