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Single Mother Joins MARPs Program, Finishes Education

“I enjoy freedom and my peers know it. We keep no secrets. They see my success and are inspired.”
– Yetemwork Elias, 23

Yetemwork Elias was only 15 years old when she ran away from home. She had just finished the 10th grade and with three friends moved from Northern Ethiopia to the city of Dilla in Southern Ethiopia, over 1,000 kilometers from home.

She left her two sisters behind while her mother struggled to provide for the family. In Dilla, Yetemwork found a job as a waitress in a cafe and began vocational training as a secretary. To pay for school fees she began appointing men to her small rented room.

In 2007, Yetemwork learned she was pregnant with a client’s baby. She knew who he was, but he left and never returned.

“I was not easy to take care of a child and work. I was sleeping with customers in the same room next to my baby,” she says.

In mid-2010, a friend at the cafe told her about EngenderHealth’s Most at-Risk Populations (MARPs) program and she immediately joined a peer group.

“I learned so much. I learned to protect myself. I learned that if I were HIV positive, I could still live my life. I learned to get tested regularly.” But most importantly, she found a support system and was resolved to finish her degree.

For nearly two years, Yetemwork worked full time at the cafe, attended evening classes and raised her child alone.

In 2011, Yetemwork became a peer educator and began teaching Dilla’s commercial sex workers. The same year, she decided to leave the industry for good and finished her degree in August. Six years after leaving home, “I finally called my mother because I had something to tell her that I could be proud of,” she says.

In less than a year, Yetemwork has led five groups totaling 50 commercial sex workers living in Dilla. “I enjoy freedom, and they know it. We keep no secrets. They see my success and are inspired.”

Yetemwork also contributes to a savings fund with nine other colleagues. The group plans to open a restaurant in Dilla in the future. “I am an accountant, my friends have other skills. We will work for ourselves for a change.”

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