The Mocha Club Journey team has landed back home safely in the States – back to the same work week but not back with the same heart posture. Each project partner we visited left us with a change in knowledge, perspective, & joy. One of our team members, Lizzie, shares about one such encounter…
From the Shadows into the Light: Renewing Hope for Women and Girls in Ethiopia
As we drive down the streets of one of Addis Ababa’s red light districts, dozens of young girls stand in the shadows against concrete walls, faintly illuminated by the cold glow of fluorescent streetlights. Girl after girl, with only a few feet separating one from the next, flash past us as we make our way down the rows of rundown shacks and dingy bars. Nebiyu, the program manager for Ellilta Women At Risk, takes us from one location to another, each street lined with dozens of sex workers waiting for their first customers of the night. I try to count how many there are, but quickly find it’s impossible – there are too many to count. In disbelief, I asked Nebiyu if there’s always this many girls out here. “No,” he explains, “it’s still early, and it’s a Sunday. There’s usually much more.”
This is life for thousands of women and girls in Addis Ababa. Figures estimate that there are as many as 150,000 prostitutes in the city alone, and the number is rapidly growing. Here, the price for sex runs as low as 10 birr, which is equivalent to less than 50 cents in US dollars. Women and girls who have entered into prostitution are marginalized, exploited, ignored; they are regularly victims of abuse, often living in poverty. So it’s a valid question to ask: Why would they do it?
In our culture, there is a common misconception that prostitution is a choice. However, I would argue that in most cases, prostitution actually arises from a lack of choice. In Ethiopia, many women come to Addis from rural areas across the country in search of a better life for themselves and their families. Over 80 percent of Ethiopia’s population lives in the countryside, where the average income is less than $1 per person per day. Desperate for work, girls will leave their rural homes and make the journey to Addis. However, without education or job training, many will eventually abandon hope in ever finding work and resign themselves to a life of prostitution with the belief that they have no other option.
For other women, sexual exploitation may be the only life they know. A vast majority of girls on the streets were victims of sexual abuse as children, with estimates ranging anywhere from 75 to 90 percent. Others are the product of intergenerational prostitution, where mothers involved in sex work will raise their daughters to follow in their footsteps. So the women we see standing on the street may not have been trafficked from another country, chained to a bed, and sold to strange men; but is there ultimately a difference between physical chains and psychological ones?
Regardless of how it begins, the outcome is often the same: frequent and often severe physical abuse, sexual assault, sexually transmitted diseases such as HIV/AIDS, substance abuse, and addiction. One study found that 68 percent of prostituted women met the criteria for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which falls within the same range as combat veterans and victims of torture. Women who are in prostitution also have a significantly higher death rate than women who are not.
It is apparent that the dangers are incredibly real but many perceive them to be inescapable. In a study conducted across nine countries, 89 percent of women involved in the sex industry are desperate to escape, but feel they are unable to overcome their circumstances due to economic necessity, addiction, a lack of employment options, coercion, or access to basic human services such as a home, education, job training, counseling, or treatment. This is where organizations like Ellilta Women at Risk step in to break the cycle of exploitation and abuse. Through their programs, Ellilta Women at Risk has renewed hope for over a thousand women, giving them a life of freedom and restoration.
ABOUT ELLILTA-WOMEN AT RISK
Ellilta Women at Risk (EWAR) is a holistic 21-month program for women who want to escape the commercial sex industry. Throughout the entire program, women are given access to free childcare and a monthly stipend, which frees them from the financial pressure to return to the streets to support themselves and their children. The first six months are dedicated to counseling, nutrition, and treatment. The following six months provides the women with training in a marketable skill, job placement, and any assistance if they wish to start their own business. After 12 months, the women will have successfully graduated from the program but will continue to have monthly check-ins for an additional nine months as they begin to search for new jobs or start their own business.
Ellilta Women at Risk has a partnership with Ellilta Products, which is a company that provides additional job training and employment to women in the Women At Risk program (to learn more about their story, visit www.elliltaproducts.com).
To ensure that their children are cared for throughout the duration of the program, EWAR also covers any school fees and provides daycare services, after school tutoring, psychosocial and medical support, organized activities, and summer day camps. This provides children with a safe place to live, play, learn and grow.
During a field study conducted in local schools and churches, EWAR found that the average age that a person enters prostitution is age 12. At this age, children who have grown up in an atmosphere where sex work has been normalized begin to view their bodies as a source of income. To prevent and protect these children from sexual exploitation, EWAR meets with local schools and churches to educate the community on the risks and damaging effects of prostitution.
From victims to leaders:
90% of the women who graduate from the Women at Risk program never return to prostitution. These women transform themselves from victims into survivors, and from survivors into leaders. Many go on to start new businesses, and often return to support and train other graduates. Relationships are renewed, families are transformed, and hope is spread through the entire community. EWAR has been so successful in their work that grassroots ministries from over a dozen African countries have duplicated their model and are now transforming the lives of thousands of women all across Africa.
The morning after the night drive, Nebiyu drove with us to the Women At Risk program center in Nazareth, a city about 2 hours outside of Addis. Our van came to a stop in front of a colorful gate surrounded by high walls. The dark images in our minds of countless young girls hidden in the shadows melted away as the guard opened the gate and we walked into a bright courtyard filled with lush greenery, mango trees and orange hibiscus flowers. Several stations with sewing machines and vibrant fabrics were set up in the sunshine, and we were instantly met with warm smiles and the sounds of laughter. It was immediately obvious to all of us that this place was a safe haven; a world away from the life that these women once lived.
The transformative power of this program in the lives of these women, their families, and their communities cannot be overestimated. I will never forget these women, their stories, their strength or their bravery. I will never forget the smiles on their faces or their tears of joy. I will never forget the love they pour into their families and each other, or the love they have fought to pour back into themselves.