Timret le Hiwot in Ethiopia – Part 3
Political correctness has never been much of a bother for me. If there’s a kinder, more respectful way to speak, I’m generally happy to find it. And if ever a word needed a kinder, more respectful overhaul, it’s the word prostitute.
Enter the world of Timret le Hiwot, a nongovernmental organization based in Addis Ababa that strives to eradicate HIV and AIDS in Ethiopia through work with some of the country’s most vulnerable citizens, commercial sex workers.
When education levels are low and unemployment high and babies need to be fed, women will do what it takes to survive. One of the most consistent forms of income can be through commercial sex. Demand for the service is high and, as a program administrator put it, “As long as people still like sex, we think there will be a need for us.”
The key to working successfully with anyone is respect. This is particularly true with commercial sex workers. At Timret le Hiwot, one gets an immediate feeling that people who arrive for services are treated with dignity and without judgment. No one is there to be reformed. Rather, job skills are offered that will provide an economically viable way out of the sex industry. Women gather in groups to learn sewing, leatherwork, mirror work, embroidery, clay work and woodwork. They are taught about reproductive health , hygiene and sanitation. A goal of 100% condom use is pursued through a companion program called Wise Up.
Learning a craft takes time and practice. You don’t expect success and perfection overnight. Success at Timret le Hiwot is measured in simple terms. A woman may not be able to leave sex work completely while learning a trade. If she can reduce the nights per week though that she needs to work, she has reduced her vulnerability to HIV infection. One does not need to renounce sex work as a condition of support. Care, love and guidance is offered to all women at all levels of involvement in the industry. The goal is to make more economic options available to women than sex work.
Just as important as the efforts with sex workers is the time invested with the supporting actors of the trade. Owners of bars and hotels are invited to educational days that are fun and informative. They, too, are encouraged to support 100% condom use by offering condoms at their facilities.
Our group spent a full day at Timret le Hiwot. We met clients, learned about the philosophy of the organization as well as the economic realities of the poor in Ethiopia. We mingled and talked story. I blushed with embarrassment after I realized how stupid it sounded to answer, “Because I don’t have a husband” when asked by a sex worker why I don’t have a child. My reality, of course, is much more complicated than that. Her reality is too.
We sat in on sewing classes. We ooed and awed over clay work and hand sewn toys. We talked about designs for decorator pillows that might sell well in the States. And we shopped. Boy did we shop. As if someone’s life depended on it.
Melissa Mendonca lives and works in Red Bluff as a youth development program coordinator. She has wanderlust in her heart and a love of stories that make our world seem smaller. You may reach her at email@example.com