Something that constantly throws me off guard here in Ethiopia is the sex trade. I have been to Cuba where there is constant pressure to contract a “friend for a day”, or on Jarvis Street near College where women of the night walk around in shoes that defy gravity. But it’s nothing like here. The Ethiopian sex trade has found itself into every nook and cranny of society, and it’s basically accepted (maybe not the individual sex trade workers, but the whole concept of sex trade). And unlike Thailand, it’s not for foreigners and UN employees, but for everyone to partake in…even the poorest of the poor.
There is no need for an Addis red light district- one can find prostitutes in clusters on virtually every corner of the city, and of course in the bars. The thing that’s most amazing is the layers of the trade: transactional sex, commercial sex, a job in a local alcohol shop cum brothel, a financially supportive week-long ‘boyfriend’…there are so many ways the trade manifests itself.
Both CPAR and CAPAIDS work against the sex trade, the first in rural communities and the latter in Addis itself, and both of them focus on the implications of the sex trade on HIV/AIDS. This weekend I visited the commercial sex worker income generation activities of CAPAIDS partner, HAPCSO. The women I met come from rural areas seeking work, don’t find it, and then end up working as prostitutes in local alcohol shops. If they have sex without a condom, they make 10birr per trick (about $1!) and with a condom, only about 1birr. HAPCSO has given them training in sewing, leather work, and construction vehicle driving. Now these women are able to support themselves in getting out of the sex trade, and advocate on HIV/AIDS to those that still remain in the brothels. Often, the organization faces resistance as so many community leaders benefit from continued prostitution, but HAPCSO has been lucky to find a Kebele (city neighbourhood) with a supportive leadership and has begun projects there. The next step is to expand projects to reach more of the massive number of sex workers living in Addis.
Third World sex trade is featured in activism, literature and development academics, but I never expected it to find its way into my work, my neigbourhood or my friend group.