By all outward indicators, Addis Ababa is a city on the rise: new building projects abound, houses are going up everywhere, and there are imported cars in the streets. This is no doubt the fruit of a 50 year old stable government, but rapid development—as seen in many places in BRIC countries— has a bad habit of leaving many demographics in the dust. The rise of child prostitution in Addis Ababa has earned it, according to the Ethiopian Reporter, a new nickname: The “Thailand of Africa.”
To understand sex trafficking in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital city, you start at Merkato. Merkato is a door, a bus station; an entry point. Women and children from all over Ethiopia come to Addis Ababa and their first stop is the long-distance bus stop in the Merkato district, but many children never make it deeper into the city. Here is where they arrive, and here is where they are sold night after night. And the steady migration patterns coming to Addis Ababa means a steady pool of new recruits for traffickers.
Even though the country has been on a journey of abolition since 1876, feudal propriety for decades into the 20th century permitted lords to take advantage—sometimes sexually—of the wives and children of a serf. This foundation stone of abuse has never been fully replaced. Beyond that, prostitution has been a well-respected vocation in Ethiopia since the Middle Ages. Throughout the era of Italian colonization and beyond to modern times, prostitution has grown with urbanization and flourished when Addis Ababa was established as the capital. As recently as 1990, a full 7% of the adult female population in Addis Ababa was involved in prostitution, with thousands of children also involved.
Rarely in Ethiopia are women abducted outright or trafficked directly into prostitution. Many young girls are sent here because of the household service industry. The demand for servants by a growing middle class (a household with many servants is demonstrably higher in status and wealth than one without) has given rise to a recruitment industry that in and of itself rarely delivers to willing recruits what was promised. Often parents living in rural areas will take the gamble in hopes that their daughter will acquire new skills that will enable her to support them. The expectation of education and meager pay is often forfeited by the young girl when she gets to the city, though the push factor of gender inequality amounts to little concern from either her family or her guardians. She may be transferred from one house to the next simply on a whim, and perhaps without pay. And that is if she is lucky. If she is not, her “employer” may turn her out on the streets where the rapacious prostitution industry awaits her.
But the streets are vicious. Largely, a prostituted woman is at the thin mercy of a buyer’s capacity for violence. It is not unheard of for a woman, if she will not lower her standard rate or agree to some deviant service for a buyer, to be taken to a hotel by a buyer’s cohort where she is gang raped.
Some women are recruited directly into prostitution by bars and clubs. Using similar practices of sending recruiters to impoverished rural regions, the recruits are transported to Addis by middlemen and then sold at auctions to local establishments that desire to provide prostitution services to their customers. The task of initiating young girls into their devastating new lot often is taken up by the bar owners themselves. In the rare case that a rape is reported and the rapist prosecuted, the perpetrator will typically be released on bail or the charges dropped altogether.
Through a complex web of history, classism, and the persistent vulnerability of women and children, Addis Ababa is a city that highlights the injustice of prostitution. When sex is commercialized, a culture of permissiveness overlooks the brutality of how women are drawn into prostitution and ignores the violence perpetrated on women trapped in the industry. The result is an atrocious evil suffered by countless victims who have been reduced to part of the cultural tableau.
This City in Focus comes from The Horn of Africa Region. To read an overview of this region click here.