Tales of a Red Light District

Indeed it is the oldest profession even in Ethiopia. According to Dr. Eyasu Hailesellasie, the beginning of prostitution in Ethiopia can be traced as far back as the 17th century in Gondar, Axum and Lalibela. The era of Kings and Kingdoms, in which male dignitaries would make their way to Gondar for various official purposes and during their stay partake in coitus with the women in the area. In the modern era, prostitution is attributed to the expansion of cities and establishment of various night entertainment spots. After Menelik II took up the upper palace as the imperial abode, the Arat Kilo area was left to be divided up for the establishment of various businesses, amongst which bars and night clubs took root and facilitated the rise of prostitution.
Today, a red light district in Arat Kilo, behind Tourist Hotel and the Ministry of Education, is the source of tales unimaginable. Investigative journalists reporting for the radio show Abugida, share that the district is a melting pot of bed renters, pimps, sex-workers, families and inebriated ” customers” openly negotiating in broad day light. The female sex-workers range in age from as young as 15 years. The feature of the radio show is a 49-year old sex-worker who has been earning her income in this manner for thirty years. She’s now a mother of four, and though not engaged exclusively herself, she confesses that every so often she would also engage in sex-work and has no qualms so long as her income is secured. She lives in a 2 ½ x 3 meter room with her youngest child and four other sex-workers. Her daughter who grew up in that same room witnessing her mother sell her body for income, now does the same three houses down. Her other kids stay with family elsewhere while the youngest boy lives with her witnessing the sounds and sights of a sexual transaction undertaken by four sex-workers in that small room.
The woman of the house explains how she brought all four girls from Gojjam, promising them and their families that there are opportunities for work in Addis. By any definition she is no doubt a sex-trafficker engaged in earning an income from the proceeds of what the girls make selling sex. She charges each girl living under her roof Birr 25 per day for renting beds cordoned off from the other beds by curtains. Whether the girls make money that day or not she says is off no concern to her as she takes her business and money very seriously. Her contribution to their well-being, she claims, is availing condoms to them which she sells at 50 cents per packet and emphasizes that they must use.
 Choice or Consequence?
Western discourses on liberal and radical feminist perspectives of prostitution revolve around the freedom of choice and the consequence of patriarchy. The former take the argument that partaking in that lifestyle by choice is not a source of oppression but a consensual business transaction and therefore legalization would ensure better results for the women. Whereas the latter group’s argument is entrenched in a dissection of power relations and oppression which degrade women and therefore bringing women out of that lifestyle is of essence. Although I have not come across a chorus of female voices here in Ethiopia that reveal which perspective they lean towards, I intuit it to be towards the radical perspective.
Why Sex-Work?
The circumstances that lead women in Addis Ababa to this line of work are surprising sometimes and not at all in other instances. Based on the findings of the investigative journalist’s interviews, there are apparently three categories of why women and girls end up in prostitution. The first category is that with which prostitution is most associated with – poverty. An interviewee shares she came down to Addis from Gondar hoping to sustain herself and her child. She supposedly became pregnant when she was in 8th grade and upon finding out of her pregnancy, her aunt with whom she lived kicked her out, leaving her with no means of supporting herself and the child which she was to bear. The second category though less commonly heard is understandable in that generational continuity is exhibited within a home. One of the sex workers interviewed shared that she grew up sleeping beneath her mother and hearing the sounds and sights of her mother’s work that eventually she began to be curious of what this lifestyle would feel and be like. The third category, which Marxist feminists would argue is the consequence of a capitalist system, is indeed related to the consumerist attitude. Supporting this, another one of the interviews exclaimed that she was drawn to become a sex-worker as she saw her friends dressed up and sparkling which made her want to be like them.
Whether by choice or circumstance, the challenges sex-workers face are cumbersome. At a high risk of contracting sexually transmitted diseases including HIV/AIDS and serving as punching bags for inebriated clients, the girls and women report that convincing the men to use condoms is a great challenge they face. Additionally, they are often swindled out of their money by those who refuse to pay up. In cases that they have to pay a daily rate to the bed renters as discussed above, they are often left struggling to make ends meet.
Way forward?  
Prostitution in Ethiopia is not criminalized. However, the instances under which it is an offence is stipulated under Article 634 of the FDRE Criminal Code:   ” Whoever, for gain, makes a profession of or lives by procuring or on the prostitution or immorality of another, or maintains, as a landlord or keeper, a brothel, is punishable with simple imprisonment and fine.” Like many legal instruments around the world that can serve women but fail in implementation, this one is not watertight either.
Some organizations are involved in assisting sex-workers leave this work by investing in vocational training to enable them to seek employment. However, while the perils of sex-work are plenty, for some the financial aspect is a stronger temptation and one that guarantees the entry of many more girls and women amidst the soaring cost of living. With this knowledge, I remain divided between the radical feminist perspective that views prostitution and the related ” choice” as the product of an oppressive patriarchal system, and the liberal feminist perspective that accepts this is not something that will disappear anytime soon and therefore focus should be on maximizing the legal protection and rights of women and girls who fall or choose the path of sex-work.
On a random 7pm evening, I’m speed-walking for exercise with a friend as I spot a sex worker clad in barely anything in the chill of the evening, walk down the street to take position. ” Oh my God” I hear someone exclaim behind me and curiously turn around to meet the gaze of a woman who speedily explains to me, ” I mean, I’m like her too, but herssss, that’s just too much.” I walk away smiling at her confession, yet contemplating the ” choice” or circumstances that have led each one of them to line up these streets.
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Love & Light

  1. Thank you, Bilu.
    My goal would be to offer options to those who want to leave the business, and legal protection for those who want to stay.
    And once more, education is, in my view, the very key to any kind of progress.

  2. Hi Bilu! I was so excited to stumble on to your blog, I often feel like I may be the only Ethiopian feminist out there but here you are! Your mom had mentioned to me that you were working on gender but I didn’t know about the blog. Well done, I’m really impressed.
    I also think we should get together and talk, I’m actually doing my PhD research on violence against sex workers in Addis so there are definitely overlaps in our interest areas. Can you call me on 0911190442?
    Keep up the good work.

  3. wow, I am Seth Christopher Yaw Appiah from Ghana and a SUPER Research Fellow for Save the children International evaluating the Youth In Action Programme Woldia in Amhara region. Driven by much curiosity and quest to examine the variations in sex work across countries, i went into a bar at night and was shocked at the number of young girls into prostitution, this is business and thrives across countries but not to be seen in a zonal or district level since it can only be found in regional capitals in Ghana and even that not all the regions that such exist. I am interested in carrying out a study to examine their sex negotiation skills and what accounts for that, as an African /liberal feminist, maybe i could contribute to helping the plight of these innocent women , and this might be my widows mite,Could i have any assistance with tools for data collection

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