“Here, you can go through these as well,” my mom said as she handed me a rubbermaid container.
A few months ago, I took on the task of sorting through my old childhood memories. I’d just found my old stuffed animals and was about to move onto the Polly Pockets when my mom placed the most exciting box of all into my lap. It was full of old letters, drawings, and notebooks.
When I lived as a kid in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, email had just been invented and wasn’t yet widely used. So I wrote letters – dozens of them – to all my friends back in Finland. Most of their letters to me, along with my old sticker books and writing assignments, were in the box I now held.
As I rummaged through the assortment of items, I came across a letter my sixth grade teacher, Ms. Gerber, had written to me after I’d left Ethiopia. In it she explained that on Thursdays after school, she would do outreach with the prostitutes in Addis. The way she described it was age appropriate for a sixth grader, so it’s only now, as an adult, that I fully understand the scope of her volunteer work.
For the first time in 18 years, I recently returned to Addis. Leaving a place as a child and returning as an adult is a strange experience – not only has the city itself changed, but the way I see it as well. Thinking of Ms. Gerber and her volunteer work, I wanted to speak with people who were doing similar outreach in the city today.
This led me to meet Cherry, a local woman with a passion to restore the lives of prostituted women. She is the founder of Ellita Women At Risk, an organization that does outreach and rehabilitation in Addis.
Over sambusas, coffee, and tea, I peppered Cherry and her colleague, Seble, about their work.
First, I wanted to find out how people end up in prostitution in Addis.
Some girls sell their bodies because that’s what their mothers did. In other cases, young girls are brought to Addis as domestic servants, only to discover that the salary they were promised per month is actually what they get paid per year. They are treated as worthless servants and sometimes only permitted to eat food scraps left over from meals. This pushes some into prostitution, as they feel it is their only way out of their situation.
Poverty is a cruel master.
Cherry and Seble explained that the sex industry operates a bit differently in East Africa than in the Western part of the continent. For example, in Nigeria, extensive trafficking networks funnel Nigerian girls to brothels in Europe. While some Ethiopians are trafficked to Middle Eastern countries for labour and sometimes prostitution, it appears that the international criminal networks are not quite as organized.
In Cherry’s experience, many of the women who sell sex in Addis aren’t necessarily controlled by a pimp who uses physical force or violence. However, another type of manipulation is often at play, and it’s a strong, more subtle force – the mental manipulation of a boyfriend.
Known as “loverboys” in places like the Netherlands, these boyfriends are essentially pimps in disguise. The women will fund their addictions and their lifestyles, all for the promise of love and a future. And perhaps most powerful of all, society plays a role in defining their worth.
“Society has decided for the women that this is all they can do. It’s still very patriarchal society. Men are always the decision makers. Women carry most of the load but do it quietly.”
On average, a woman will see anywhere between two and five customers a night. While many don’t typically experience violence at the hands of their loverboys, they often receive it from johns. Sometimes the john feels shame after he’s purchased sex, and takes it out on the woman in the form of a beating. Others may rob the woman or refuse to wear a condom. Some women experience gang rape.
An estimated 74% of women in prostitution in Addis are HIV+.
Cherry and Seble explained that their role is to come alongside the women and support them in a very relational way. Their approach is tailored to fit individual needs, but they don’t push it on anyone. The women themselves have to make the decision to transition to a new way of life.
“Value is given by God, not dictated by society. The community has always decided things for them, now it’s their time to decide.”
So what does this look like? The transition support cycle process last for one year, and 20 women at a time go through it together. “When they enter the program, there is a honeymoon period for about 3 to 4 weeks,” Cherry explained, “everyone loves each other.”
But then the drama begins. They’re accustomed to an environment of fierce competition, and learning to build relationships with other women is hard. For example, despite deep poverty, they would never pool together their resources and share a house because of lack of trust. The emotional effects of prostitution run deep.
In the program, the women get counselling and skills training. They also receive a monthly allowance of 700 birr ($33 USD) and seasonal fruit. One of the biggest challenges is that living costs in Addis are going up rapidly. With no such thing as a minimum wage in Ethiopia, finding work that pays enough is extremely difficult.
Considering that women can make anywhere between 10 and 800 birr per trick ($0.50-$28 USD), which is frighteningly low for what they have to give in exchange but still significantly more than they can make in other sectors, you can imagine that some are tempted to return to their former life.
This is a very real temptation, especially because about half of the women have children. Because of this, Ellita Women at Risk also offers an intervention program for the kids. The children themselves face enormous challenges. They lack a father figure, and many have also experienced a disconnection with their mother (which easily happens when she is out at night and sleeps during the day). Some mothers are neglectful, and others are overprotective, not even allowing their babies to crawl.
For those who are old enough to understand what their mother is doing, there is a sense of shame. Some experience anxiety over realities like, “will my mom come home in the morning?” I can’t imagine having that worry on my shoulders as a 12 year old.
The intervention program for kids offers counselling, opportunities for healthy socialization, school uniforms, daycare, and parenting classes. It is important for the kids and moms to transition into a new life together.
“The real change is usually seen about two to three years after they’ve gone through the program,” Cherry said. “It’s the good stories that keep us going.”
May there be many, many good stories, so that no child has to worry about whether their mom will come home.
If you’d like to learn more about the work of Ellita Women at Risk, you can do so here.