The growing child prostitution and human trafficking in Ethiopia should put all Ethiopians to shame

EDITOR’S NOTE: While Ethiopia’s regime cooks up fantastic numbers to show double digit growth, the realities on the ground are more sobering and depressing.  The political elite is addicted to foreign handouts and human trafficking. In an economy where unemployment runs as high as 50% and foreign exchange is continuously in short supply, the regime has embarked on a major initiative to export young women for profit. Within Ethiopia itself, poverty, bad cultural practices and the presence of so many alms givers in a destitute country is exposing poor and vulnerable children to exploitation.

Stolen Childhoods: Child Prostitution And Trafficking In Ethiopia

By Graham Peebles

Prostitution, perhaps the most distressing form of child abuse, is an epidemic throughout Ethiopia. The innocence of a childhood shattered, causing a deep feeling of shame, poisoning the sense of self and excluding the child from education, friends and the broader society. A society, which stands idly by whilst children suffer, speaking not in the face of extreme exploitation, denying the truth of extensive child exploitation and acts not, is a society in collusion.

In the capital, prostitution abounds, “It is difficult to give an exact figure for the prevalence of child prostitution in Addis Ababa but observation reveals that the numbers are increasing at an alarming rate in the city”1 The joint Save the Children Denmark and Addis Ababa City administration (SCD) study states: “Interviewing children revealed that over 50% started engaging in prostitution below 16 years of age. The majority work more than six hours per day”

There are many grades or levels of prostitution, “Some children engage in commercial sex in nightclubs, bars and brothels, while others simply stand on street corners waiting for men to pick them up.” (CPAA)

The SCD study “identified types of child prostitution: working on the streets; working in small bars; working in local arki or alcohol houses; working in rented houses/beds and; working in rent places for khat/drugs use. Each location exposes the children to different risks and hazards.”

“The major problems that have been faced by children engaged in prostitution include: rape, beating, hunger, etc. Based on the responses of children engaged in prostitution, about 45% of them have been raped before they engaged in the activity”. (CPAA)

The dangers associated with child prostitution affect the girls physical and mental/emotional health. Violent physical abuse, being hit and raped is common, Birtuken a 17 year old child sex worker (CSW), “prostitution is disastrous to the physical and social wellbeing of a person.” (CPAA)

The impact on the long-term mental health of a child working in prostitution, can often cause chronic psychological problems, “the emotional health consequences of prostitution include severe trauma, stress, depression, anxiety, self-medication through alcohol and drug abuse; and eating disorders.2

The risk of contracting sexually transmitted diseases (STD’s) and HIV/Aids is great, so too the chances of unwanted pregnancies, as men, immersed in selfishness and ignorance, refuse to wear condoms. Their arrogance and macho bravado is a major cause in the spread of HIV/Aids in Ethiopia USAID3 suggests, “1.3million people are now living with the virus in the country”. It is estimated that “70 per cent of female infertility is caused by sexually transmitted diseases that can be traced back to their husbands or partners.”4 “Women in prostitution have been blamed for this epidemic of STDs when, in reality, studies confirm that it is men who buy sex in the process of migration who carry the disease from one prostituted woman to another and ultimately back to their wives and girlfriends.” (EoP)

There are various causes for the growth in child prostitution in urban and rural areas as well as Addis Ababa, arranged marriages, illegal under Federal Law is cited as a key factor, “Research carried out in 2005 established that most victims of commercial sexual exploitation found in the streets of Addis Ababa had been married when they were below 15 years of age” (SAACSEC) In highlighting the factors that drive children away from their homes and into commercial sex work, the CPAA study found that “Most of the child prostitutes came from regions to look for a job, due to conflicts at home, early marriage and divorce.

Poverty, death of one or both parents, child trafficking, high repetition rates and drop out from school and lack of awareness about the consequence of being engaged in prostitution are key factors that push young girls to be involved in commercial sex work”. (CPAA)

In addition to arranged marriage, which is a significant cause, the study found that “the major reasons identified by the children themselves for engaging in commercial sex work are: poverty (34%), dispute in family (35%), and death of mother and/or father. 40% joined prostitution either to support themselves or their parents. Quite a large number of girls (35%) have joined prostitution due to violence within the home. Thus violence within the family is the main cause for children fleeing from home.”

The causes listed are complex and interrelated. At the epicenter of these diverse reasons though sits the family. Conflict at home is for many girls (and boys) the force driving them away from family and onto the streets of Addis Ababa, or one of the provincial towns and cities. Division and conflict grow from many seeds, repeated physical abuse at the hands of a parent or stepparent, rape at the hands of a Father, stepfather or extended family member, physical and verbal abuse, all are factors that force girls to leave the home and seek release from what has become a prison like existence of servitude, intimidation and fear. “When physical and psychological punishment becomes intolerable, it may lead to the child running away from home. Girls tend to become prostitutes when they run away from home.” (VACE2)

Another burgeoning group from which many children fall into the net of prostitution is that resulting from HIV-orphans who have lost their parents to the virus. “Ethiopia has one of the largest populations of orphans in the world: 13 per cent of Ethiopian children have lost one or both parents…the number of children orphaned solely by HIV/AIDS has reached over 1.2 million. These children find themselves at a very high risk of entering commercial sex to survive, yet there is very limited support available for them either from government [emphasis mine}.”(AACSE)

Coherent or dysfunctional, the social fabric is a tapestry of interrelated, interconnected strands. Neglect by the Ethiopian Government in areas diverse, and fundamental is the glue that is binding together a polluted stream of suffering and pain.

Bussed in Married off

In 2006/7, I worked with the Forum for Street Children Ethiopia (FSCE), running education projects for the children in their care. Girls living and working on the streets, mainly the hectic cobbled broken pathways around the Mercato Bus station. “This extremely poor neighborhood in the city has become ‘the epicentre of the capital’s illegal [emphasis mine] industry of child prostitution’5

The children at FSCE ranged in age, although many did not even know their date of birth; most the children do not have documentation “the problem is further aggravated by a widespread lack of birth registration” (CPAA). Some were as young as 11 years old, “over 50% started engaging in prostitution below 16 years of age” the study states. “In almost every case the girls come to the city from the countryside, their families cast many out, others sent to Addis to work”.

Arriving at the city’s main bus-station, shrouded in naivety and fear, with little or no education, the girls make easy pickings for the men that greet them, with a warm smile, and a cunning mind only to mistreat, use and exploit them. With nowhere else to go, and no alternatives, the girls find themselves working the street and the journey into the painful, destructive prison of prostitution has begun.

Many, according to Save the Children Denmark (STCD), come from the Amhara region, the second most populated region, with a population of over 20 million. These children arrive in the capital knowing nobody, with (probably) no money and no contacts.”Enforced child marriages, abuse, and the prospects of ending their days in the grip of poverty are factors pushing Ethiopian girls as young as nine years of age’” (VACE), to risk their childhood and their lives in the city.

According to (CPAA) “There are many factors pushing the girls away from the region, (Amhara) including poverty, peer pressure and abuse. But child marriage is one of the most common explanations we hear when interviewing the girls,” Arranged marriages are widespread in the (Amhara) region in the north of Ethiopia, where young girls, children are forced to marry adult men, all too often this ‘union’ results in rape, abuse and violence, from which the innocent child is forced to flee, only into the clutches of exploitation, violence and abuse. And do they recover, is there healing and release, is a childhood stolen, a childhood lost, let us pray it is not so.

Marriages entered into unwillingly by extremely young girls, some as young as seven years old usually in exchange for reparations of some kind, money, cattle, land, lead all too often to abuse and violence, “traditional practices like female genital mutilation (FGM) and early marriage, are causes for the increased violence against children.” 14-year-old boy 6 “in Wolmera Woreda, the practice of FGM is nearly universal since girls must be circumcised before marriage.” (VACE2) Once committed to a marriage, by parents who often regard the child as no more than an object to be traded, the girl is frequently raped and mistreated and treated as a servant. “Abduction, rape and early marriage may ultimately lead many girls to prostitution. Early marriage and abduction seldom produce successful marriages. In fact, such relationships are short-lived. As a result, most of these young girls run far away from their husbands in an attempt to start a new and happier life elsewhere. Unfortunately, many of them end up as prostitutes.’ (VACE2)

“Early marriage is illegal (except under particular circumstances), weak law enforcement [Emphasis mine] allows this practice to be widely followed throughout Ethiopia; the phenomenon is reported in almost every region of the country.

Nationwide, 19 per cent of girls were married by the age of 15 and about half were married by the age of 19; in Amhara region, 50 per cent of girls were married by the age of 15. “When the marriage finally collapses, the girls usually migrate to urban areas since breaking a marriage arranged by their relatives is considered a shameful act and they are no longer welcome within their families and communities.

Once in larger towns they end up living in the streets given their lack of skills to find employment. Such dire circumstances lead many girls to be exploited in commercial sex.” (CPAA)

To break free of a forced marriage entered into against the child’s will, and be punished by banishment from the family home, is a form of social injustice based on traditions, which have long failed to serve the children, the family or the community at large. It is time long since past that these practice’s where changed. Education, cultivating tolerance and understanding of the Human Rights of the Child are keys to undoing such outdated destructive sociological patterns, together with the enforcement of the law to deter parents and prospective ‘husbands’.

No options, no hope

No child enters into prostitution when they have a choice, “prostitution is seen as a social ill that is unaccepted, prohibited and fought in most parts of our continent. Prostitution is not only a question of morality but a human problem, a problem of human exploitation, a problem of societal failure in providing equal opportunities.” (CPAA) “At the end (of the interview) Belaynesh said that no girl/woman would like to be a prostitute but the problems force them to be in such a situation.” The circumstances that lead a young girl away from the games and innocence of childhood and what should be, the love and gentle kindness of her family, into the shadows of prostitution, may vary and circumstances differ, suffering though is common to all those forced into such a lifestyle, the impact long lasting and severe, the consequences dire, destroying many lives.

The children at FSCE in Mercato told us their stories, often with shame, through tears and embarrassment, always with pain. A thread connected them all, yes poverty, was a major issue, so too poor education however, the stream that united the group of wonderful 11 to 18 year olds, was a breakdown in human relationships, of one kind or another.

Once outside the family, and society, young girls desperate to survive have little choice but to work as CSW. For those recruiting and selling girls It is a business, for the children on the streets it a torture. “Almost all respondents do not like prostitution (99%). Almost all the girls are involved in prostitution not because they like what they are doing but due to other factors, to support themselves or their families.” (CPAA) “Child prostitution [is] a big business involving a whole series of actors from abductors at bus stations, to blue taxis and bar/hotel owners who tend to see children as the spices of their trade. The business actors, oblivious to pervasive taboos, have long abandoned recruiting adult prostitutes.” (CPAA)

Trafficking lives

Child prostitution and trafficking of children are inextricably linked. They are of course both illegal. All international conventions, from The Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) to International Labor Organisation (IL0), as one would expect, outlaw them. So too do Ethiopia’s Federal laws, “The 1993 Labor Proclamation forbids employment of young persons under the age of 14 years.

Employment in hazardous work is also forbidden for those under 18. The Penal Code provides means for prosecuting persons sexually or physically abusing children and persons engaging in child trafficking including juveniles into prostitution. Federal Proclamation no.42/93 protects children less than 14 years not to engage in any kind of formal employment.” (CPAA) And yet both child prostitution and the trafficking of minors goes on, and on and on. “The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) reported that girls are trafficked both within the country and abroad to countries in the Middle East and to South Africa.”7

Children are brought from rural areas of Ethiopia to the capital city by brokers, “ttraffickers, who feed on parent’s low awareness with false promises of work and education for their offspring.” The numbers are staggering, the money tiny, the damage unimaginable “up to 20,000 children, some 10 years old, are sold each year [for around $1.20 to $2.40] by their parents and trafficked by unscrupulous brokers to work in cities across Ethiopia.”8 And who would do such a thing. Who would ‘sell’ an innocent child; condemn a child to slavery and brutal exploitation, pain and acute distress? “These traffickers are ‘typically local brokers, relatives, family members or friends of the victims. Many returnees are also involved in trafficking by working in collaboration with tour operators and travel agencies.”9

“The Code of Conduct for the Protection of Children from Sexual Exploitation in Travel and Tourism has not been signed by any travel and tourism company in Ethiopia.” (CPAA) The Ethiopian Government acting in the interest of the children upon their homeland, and their responsibilities under international law, should rightly and immediately make all tour operators sign the afore mentioned treaty, or face closure, and criminal prosecution.

“The International Organization for Migration (IOM) stated that Ethiopian children are being sold for as little as US$ 1.20 to work as domestic servants or to be exploited in prostitution.” The Middle East is the major international destination of choice for traffickers, “Many Ethiopian women working in domestic service in the Middle East face severe abuses indicative of forced labor, including physical and sexual assault, denial of salary, sleep deprivation, and confinement. Many are driven to despair and mental illness, with some committing suicide. Ethiopian women are also exploited in the sex trade after migrating for labour purposes – particularly in brothels, mining camps, and near oil fields in Sudan – or after escaping abusive employers in the Middle East.”10 “At least 10,000 have been sent to the Gulf States to work as prostitutes.”(CTE)

Let us not even begin to look at the complicity of such states in the destruction of the lives of these children and women, the ‘little ones’ that dance upon the waters of life, seeking only a gentle heart to trust, finding the dark days of Rome, and in despair we cry “Men’s wretchedness in soothe I so deplore,”11

Meles Zenawi loves to ‘talk the talk’ to his western allies, the US, Britain, the European Union and the like, whilst turning a blind eye, a deaf ear to the cries of the child being beaten, the young girl being raped and traded for sex and the teenager separated from her family, her friends and her childhood, sold into servitude and abuse within Ethiopia and across the Red Sea in the oil rich ‘Gulf States’.

(This article is part of a series).

1. Addis Ababa City Admin Social & NGO Affairs Office (SNGOA), Save the Children Denmark (SCD) and ANNPPCAN-Ethiopian. Child Labor in Ethiopia with special focus on Child Prostitution Study. ‘Child Prostitution in Addis Ababa 2006 (CPAA)
2. Health Effects of Prostitution (EOP), Janice G. Raymond
4. Jodi L. Jacobson, The Other Epidemic
5. Sofie Loumann Nielsen. The Reporter 10 September 2010
6. Violence against children in Ethiopia (VACE). Africa Child Policy Forum
8. ILO. (CTE)
9. Ecpat Global Monitoring report status of action against commercial sexual exploitation of children, Ethiopia. (AACSE)
11. Faust Part One, Mephistopheles.

(About the author: Graham Peebles is Director of The Create Trust, a UK registered charity, supporting fundamental social change and the human rights of individuals in acute need. He may be reached at [email protected])