Divine Intervention

‘I really want to leave sex work. I was raped and became pregnant’

“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 — 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.

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