Newsflash: Development Gives Rise to Oldest Occupation

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By: Yeabsira Mehari, Young Champion of Maternal Health

This blog post was contributed by Yeabsira Mehari, one of the fifteen Young Champions of Maternal Health chosen by Ashoka and the Maternal Health Task Force at EngenderHealth. She will be blogging about her experience every month, and you can learn more about her, the other Young Champions, and the program here.

I sometimes wonder if it’s my perception of a place or the place itself that changes. Just last year, I was in Ethiopia for a few weeks but I don’t recall being shocked at the number of sex workers that lined up on every busy street in the Addis. I definitely don’t recall there being so many when I was growing up there. The neighborhood I grew up in, once a quiet family neighborhood is now one of the central locations for women to be picked up. As I drove by my childhood house, I saw scantly clad women lined up right outside my old door…and it was only 8pm. Less than a mile down the road lays the red light district of the city, Chechnya – ironically sharing a name with a country that barely recognizes women’s rights. It’s strange to imagine there is a day time pizza joint I frequent in the area yet at night, the area turns into something completely different and disturbing.

What exactly is causing the number of sex workers to rise at such an alarming rate? It’s hard to say. Addis Abeba is one of (if not the) fastest growing cities in Africa. Skyscrapers are popping up left and right, the city limits have expanded with new towns blossoming on the outskirts and families are moving away from all the areas that were once known as family neighborhoods. The number of cars has also increased dramatically. Young adults, bachelors and the like are moving into newly built condos and apartments. As a child, I remember folks being excited to be moving out of an apartment and into a house of their own. Now, people seem to be scurrying to move into the new luxury condos on the main Bole strip. With the advent of highways and paved roads, CMC, an area once considered remote is now a part of the city. Ayat has now replaced CMC but it’s only a matter of time before the city consumes it as well. And above all, internal migration is at an all time high with thousands of rural residents moving to the city in hopes of building a better life. How is all this related to the rising number of sex workers one might ask? With such rapid development, high inflation (due to world and internal markets), high unemployment rates, increasing number of internal migrants and a rapidly rising cost of living it is no wonder that women have resorted to the oldest known occupation in the world.

The African Union summit was recently held in Addis Abeba where presidents from all over the world along with senior officials and philanthropists such as Bill Gates attended. It was a very annoying time to be in the city due to the increase in security. When officials were traveling to the airport, the roads would shut down, electricity would go out and the city would come to a stand still. Yet, retail store owners were very excited. A friend shared a story with me about a good friend of his who owns a clothing store in town. He asked her what she was so excited about and she said the AU Summit of course! He was puzzled. When conferences like this happen, women go shopping she said. And suddenly it all clicked. It is an obvious association once you think of it, but at first, no one would actually consider that a summit and a clothing store have anything to do with each other. Yet, when you see the quality of life in the country, you understand that women are ready to do what they need to make money or even leave the country.

Sex tourism in Ethiopia is growing – and growing fast. Ethiopia is now on it’s way to becoming the capital of sex tourism on the African continent. Is this the price of development? Must the have-nots be left behind in the scramble for socio-economic stability? It makes one wonder what development actually means. It is important for those in power, the privileged few and the international community to understand that everything is connected. Until foreseeable and potential problems are taken into account from inception to completion of development plans, I’m uncertain of what the future of sex workers in Ethiopia will be.

To learn more about female sex workers in Ethiopia, please read the Family Health International study (.pdf) conducted in 2002. Though it may seem outdated, it will give you a general idea – history, lingo & operation of sex tourism in the Ethiopia.