“During the day I am a member of the association and at night I am a commercial sex worker in the streets. I am not sure how old I am, but I think I am around 27,” says Tigist Salomon as she introduces herself. Her carefully braided hair is pulled to the side revealing a pair of small earrings, her only adornment. Makeup is reserved for the night.
The association she talks about is Integrated Service for AIDS Prevention & Support Organization (ISAPSO), a group that helps low-income women in Ethiopia educate and support themselves. Solomon is one of 25 women who participate in one of ISAPSO’s programs, baking and selling injera (the pancake-like bread that accompanies most Ethiopian meals) for a living.
Where did you grow up?
I lived in an orphanage. With my friends, we escaped to try to find our parents. Along the way, I lost my friends and because of lack of other opportunities, I became a commercial sex worker.
Did you ever have a different job?
I tried a lot of different jobs, including shoe shiner. But I didn’t succeed. Then I started commercial sex work.
How much money do you make?
If you stay with the man the entire night you can charge up to 50 birr [roughly $6.]. If it’s for a short period of time, 20 birr. Sometimes men refuse to pay, they deceive me. I have a maximum of three clients per night.
What risks do you face in the street?
We face many problems. I was raped and became pregnant. My daughter is 9 years old.
I am very much afraid of HIV and I always go to VCT [voluntary counseling and testing]. I have to do it for my daughter; I have to live for her. Last time I got tested was six months ago.
Do men use condoms?
Men try to convince me that they don’t need to use condoms. They say, ‘I am confident of myself that I don’t need to use condoms.’ I always say no. If you go to a man’s car he might use force to try to have sex without condom.
Who are your clients?
I don’t know the profession of the clients, but they have cars. I believe they are gentlemen.
Is it safer to work at a hotel?
I would like to work at a hotel instead of in the street, but there are many commercial sex workers in the hotels. There’s a lot of competition.
How did you get involved with ISAPSO?
The association looked for me in the streets and invited me to be a member. I have learned a lot of things about HIV. I like the collaboration with other women in my same situation. We work together, we defend each other. I like that very much. We are trying now to sell finished food â€” lunches, for example. If I get enough money here, why should I go to the streets? I don’t like it there.
So you want to leave sex work?
I really want to leave sex work. She [my daughter] sees me when I put on my makeup and get ready to go out. I am worried about how that can affect her morals. One day she found a condom in my bag and asked me about it and why I was leaving the house with a condom.
Do you talk about HIV with your friends?
HIV is still very much hidden. We cannot discuss it openly. I don’t know anybody who [has] HIV. If they say that they are HIV positive they will be isolated; no one would care for them.
Do you have any other relatives besides your daughter?
I don’t have anyone that I can call family. For some time I was living in the street. I gave birth to my daughter in the street. I used to live near an NGO [non-governmental organization], and the staff from that organization helped me and gave me clothes. Now I rent a room.
Have you heard about President Bush’s PEPFAR [President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief] program?
I don’t know about Bush funding or any other funding because I am very busy. I am out all night; in the morning I sleep, and then I have to do housework.
Ethiopian reporter Kaleyesus Bekele was the Amharic-speaking translator for this interview.