Sex Workers in Ethiopia Still Chained by Oppressive NGO Despite Ongoing Political Changes

Since taking over power as Ethiopia’s Prime Minister in April this year, Abiy Ahmed, has made sweeping changes that have earned him the tag of a reformist.

One of his first visible acts internationally was to restore diplomatic relationships with forthwith rivals, Eritrea.

He also visited Somalia once considered a frosty neighbour, something that led to decades of border war. Before other countries in Africa considered troops under the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), Ethiopia was already actively involved.

Abiy also visited the Oromia provinces where dozens of people have been killed and thousands displaced due to land clashes.

He also released several journalists who had been detailed by the previous regime for ‘espionage’, or simply put questioning former PM’s government especially in regard to detaining people from the Oroma community, who at the start of 2018 staged one of the biggest protests against displacements and probably forced a regime change.

Recently, there were more accolades for Ethiopia for picking Sahle-Work Zewde as the country’s first female president. In a move being hailed as progressive, Meaza Ashenafi became the first women to be president of the Supreme Court. Ethiopia’s cabinet has 10 female ministers making it the third country – after Rwanda and Seychelles – to have gender parity.

On the face of it, Ethiopia is heading in the right direction in terms of gender parity in appointments to public offices.

However, to activists, amid all these great strides remains the issue of freedom of expression and operation especially of the civil society.

In terms of civil society, Ethiopian is among the countries in Africa with restrictive laws. The country’s Charities and Societies Proclamation restricts the work of NGO and limits the amount of money they can receive from external funders among other host of restrictions.

On the global stage, Ethiopia has attracted sharp criticism for its poor human rights record and harsh laws that have helped the government evade accountability in adherence to national and international human rights commitments.

The law restricts participation in activities that advance human and democratic rights and the promotion of equality. It also prohibits organizations that work on human rights from receiving more than 10% percent of their funding from foreign sources.

This law makes Ethiopia one of the most restrictive countries in the world for civil society organizations with a human rights-based approach in HIV programming.

According to Human Rights Watch, this law basically criminalises human rights work in Ethiopia making it hard to reach Key Populations (KPs) among them sex workers, People who inject drugs (PWID), gay men, and men who have sex with men (MSM), who bear the biggest HIV burden in the country.

The Act states that 90 per cent of funding for local organisations should be domestically generated; a tough call to adhere to. With a majority of the population struggling with poverty, donations to charitable organisations are minimal.

For those who meet the stringent requirements and get legal status, staying on course is an uphill task since they are supposed to re-register every three years, a process that comes with more hurdles. To pass the test, an organisation is supposed to provide evidence of its prior work, a three-year plan, a description of its structure showing a minimum of seven persons, evidence of the significance of the group, evidence of financing from foreign donors, a plan for using funding and fixed assets among other rules.

This has greatly hampered HIV programming despite the fact that Ethiopia is one of the countries in Sub-Saharan Africa with the highest infection burden. In addition, criminalisation of some aspects of sex work limits advocacy work and promotion of health rights among this Key Population. Sex work is Ethiopia is legal, but procuring (operating brothels, benefiting from sex work) is illegal. Other laws such as public disorder, vagrancy, loitering and religious provisions are used to prosecute women who sell sex, which in turn limits their access health services.

Collaboration with international organisations is prohibited because the NGO law explicitly states that only Ethiopian charities and societies may promote human and democratic rights, gender equality, and other rights-based work.

“Some donors fear supporting our work that include provision of health services because they may be accused of supporting criminal activities,” says a male sex worker pointing out that the harsh laws encourage stigma and discrimination against MSM, transgender and PWID.

“Raids on meeting venues and organisations serving this section of the community has forced them underground making them vulnerable and at a high risk of HIV infection. For example, MSM and gay men cannot openly go for condoms or seek health services. Majority of them suffer in silence,” says the sex worker.

As PM Abiy pushes his reformist agenda, sex workers hope his government will review the NGO law to ease restrictions on registration, financing, and operations of human rights organisations to among other things open access to health services by Key Populations.

According to Bisrate Markos, a volunteer with NIKAT Charitable, a sex-worker lead organisation, the law is under review. 

“We hope it will make our advocacy work easier,” he says.

The other contentious law is the Computer Proclamation Act of 2016, which grants the State powers to engage in surveillance and restrict digital communications with severe penalties for a variety of online activities. As such, online advocacy for KPs constrained couple with the fact that the previous regime was notorious for blocking social media sites to ‘stem dissent’.

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