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HIV Prevention Program Gives Sex Worker Confidence to Change her Life

“I don’t expect to ever make as much money as I did as a sex worker, but just being with my mother is enough for me.”
– Samira Lake, 19

Samira Lake refers to her life as a sex worker as tselmat hiwot, or the dark life in the Amharic language.

“On the outside, it’s easy to make money quickly, but on the inside there is only darkness, you sleep with a different man every day and only wish for a way to stop,” she says.

Her life as a sex worker was so dark, she never allowed her mother to see her.

Samira, 19 years old, was born in Axum, a city in Northern Ethiopia, near the border with Eritrea. She attended school until the 8th grade. Her two older brothers went off to fight in the Ethio-Eritrean war in the late nineties and never returned. Eventually her father abandoned her and her mother leaving household duties in the hands of Samira, a mere sixteen year old.

She gave into peer pressure and moved to the regional capital, Mekele, to make quick money as a commercial sex worker. Her first customer yielded 400 birr ($20 USD) and she sent the money back to her mother, to whom she was lying about working in a local restaurant.

Samira stayed in Mekele on and off for almost two years. The hotel owner where she worked urged her to open a savings account, to save her money and not spend it carelessly. “I had to buy beauty products and send at least 1000 birr to my mother every month,” she remembers.

She slept in a small room in the back of the hotel with three other sex workers. The women would go sometimes two or three weeks without customers, still spending their time in the hotel bar serving customers.

When she returned to Axum, a peer educator and fellow sex worker from EngenderHealth’s Most at-Risk Populations (MARPs) project—funded by USAID—approached her in a café. “One day I came to the drop-in center and when I saw the support they were giving, I decided that I would never go back to Mekele,” she says.

The MARPs project trained Samira as a peer-educator in March 2011. She then recruited ten more commercial sex workers to join her social support group. Using material provided by MARPs, the women support one another psychologically and are committed to safe sex and regular HIV checkups.

They also started a savings fund, and each person contributes 15 birr weekly. The group currently has over 4000 birr and hopes to get land from the local administration to start a vegetable garden and buy livestock.

With her savings, Samira and her mother started a small tea house in downtown Axum. Every month, the business earns them some 400 -500 birr. “I don’t expect to ever make as much money as I did as a sex worker, but just being with my mother is enough for me,” she says.

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