It was an unfortunate series of events that led Selam Abebe (not her real name) down a path to commercial sex work.
At the age of six, her mother died and her father left her with relatives after he married and started a new family in Eritrea. Despite the setback, Selam graduated high school and did well on university entrance exams. But instead of pursuing her studies, she got married at age 18. She and her husband had one child, but the marriage did not go well: Her husband was a drunk, prone to jealous rages and did not provide for her financially, so they divorced.
Initially, the daughter lived with her ex-husband but eventually Selam got custody of the child. After her marriage ended, Selam, now 24, was forced to fend for herself. She found a job as a waitress in a hotel.
“The only job I could find without any training was a waitress,” she says. “However, I found that working as a waitress was difficult because of low pay which was not enough to cover my basic expenses. Friends in my workplace saw better economic gain doing sex work. Thus, I felt I had no choice but to try it.”
Selam meets clients at the hotel and sometimes arranges meetings by telephone. Before COVID, she was getting one or two clients per day but she had to stop working because of the lockdown. She has started working again but it is not like before; she gets only three clients per week.
Selam has many fears when meeting clients. The main one is getting infected with HIV, especially from those clients who do not want to use condoms. She is tested every three months and, so far, has tested negative. She is also afraid of physical abuse and even murder.
In the midst of a difficult life, DKT Ethiopia’s Wise-Up HIV prevention program has been one bright spot. Its drop-in centers provide rooms to rest in during the day, health services, video entertainment and laundry facilities. “Wise-Up is like my home,” she says.
“Wise-Up helps me minimize my daily expenditures and save money. Before COVID-19, I made 500-600 Ethiopian birr ($11-$14) per day but it was not possible to save anything. However, after joining Wise Up, I started to save money.”
Selam hopes to study accounting and finance in a college during the day while continuing to work at night. She has already applied to a college and is waiting for her entrance exam. Once she has a college degree, she will get a professional job or open her own small business.
She also hopes to marry again and have more children if she can find the right man. “I don’t want to repeat what I had before because he [her ex-husband] was a difficult person so if the case is like that, I prefer to take care of my daughter and remain single.”