You cannot change the world, but you can change someone’s world.” -Mother Teresa
One night in 1992, Serawit “Cherry” Teketel, a young Ethiopian college graduate was driving home from dinner with her family when they came upon a moment that would change Cherry’s life forever. As their car pulled to a stop at a street corner in Addis Ababa, they saw a young woman flash them. The sight of this desperate prostitute who had no other way of earning a living, started a debate and made Cherry question her own circumstances in life. Although she was a recent university graduate, she had been unable to find a job for over a year but thankfully she had her family to fall back on. What if she didn’t have that luck? What if she was uneducated, poor and a single mother with no job? What would she do? Cherry’s questioning and compassion inspired her lifelong quest to get women off the streets and into a productive life away from prostitution.
After spending time on the streets, talking with girls and learning more about their issues, Cherry founded Women at Risk, a one-year rehabilitation program that aims to get girls and women out of prostitution and into a sustainable, self-reliant job and lifestyle. Women at Risk works on many different levels of rehabilitation. For the first six months, the women go through an extensive mental, physical and spiritual rehabilitation program that deals with addiction problems, health issues and psychological healing. The next six months involves skill training. Since Ethiopia has an extremely high unemployment rate and most of these women lack an education and come from severe poverty, vocational training is not an option. Cherry and her team realized that the women would need to have skills that would require little education and minimial training yet would provide them a livable income. After much brainstorming, Women at Risk implemented training courses in weaving, cooking and hairdressing.
During the year rehabilitation program, a woman must desire and commit to changing her life. In addition to the rehabilitation and skill training services, she will receive health care, day care, pocket money and groceries each week. Once she successfully completes the program, Women at Risk helps her gain employment or start her own small businesses a viable alternative to prostitution. Today, Cherry’s program has been a wonderful success. Women at Risk has helped over 360 women and over 90% of them have continued to live lives away from prostitution.
Close to the end of my two-week trip in Ethiopia as fellow with the International Reporting Project, my friend Elizabeth Ataley and I went to visit one of Women at Risk‘s partners Ellilta Products. We had heard about their gorgeous scarves through our social good blogging and work with ONE and fashionABLE. Both Elizabeth and I are proud owners and supporters of the Ellilta scarves sold in the US through fashionABLE so we wanted to meet with the women behind the scenes.
Finding Ellilta Products proved to be quite a challenge. Most places in Addis do not have a street address thus directions are generally based on proximities to cross-streets and other buildings. Thankfully we had a patient cab driver and a cell phone at hand and after thirty minutes of driving circles we saw our contact, Eden Genet Melke, waiting outside the gates of Ellilta Products. The clue that it was her was that she was holding a scarf!
We arrived just as the team was busily packing up a huge shipment of 1,106 scarves to be exported to fashionABLE in United States.
We met with Eden in her office at Ellilta Products where she gave us an overview of the operations and a brief background on Women at Risk. Four years ago, the American founder of fashionABLE learned about Cherry’s program and wanted to find a way to collaborate with Women at Risk to provide a sustainable way off the streets and into a productive life. Producing scarves and reselling them in the US was the ideal business model and has been going strong ever since.
Each new scarf design is named after a girl who made it in Women at Risk’s program and her story is told along with the scarf. A percentage of the sales of each scarf goes back to helping keep the women off the streets. Per Genet, it costs about $68 to support one woman for a year in the Women at Risk rehabilitation program. These funds are gained through the sales of the scarves and other fundraising activities.
Inside Ellilta Products is a small shop where visitors can buy scarves. Elizabeth and I were delighted to purchase some scarves for our family and friends.
After we met with Eden, we took a short walk down the street to visit the factory where the scarves were being made. This was the highlight of our visit. It was amazing to see how the scarves I had at home and wore throughout the long winters were made.
Outside the factory, women were dying the cotton in buckets of colored water.
Inside the factory, the women were spinning the cotton and weaving it into the beautiful works of art. A life much better than one spent on the street.
We heard all about the process of making a scarf, and were surprised to learn that in Ethiopia it is usually the girls who learn to spin and the boys who learn to weave. Therefore, the women in the program need to be trained on how to weave and the trainer is generally male.
I was amazed by the beautiful work and so incredibly inspired by these women.
I left Ellilta Products wondering a bit about my own life. Is it all just a matter of fate as to where we are born? These women, many who were trafficked from the countryside and forced into prostitution, were born poor yet somehow thanks to the generosity of Women at Risk and Cherry’s moment over 20 years ago that one dark night, are able to turn their lives around. I wish there were more opportunities like Women at Risk available to help.
Some facts about prostitution:
What Cherry saw that night was a small glimpse into a hidden, yet real world of many poor Ethiopian women. Even today, over twenty years later prostitution continues at a horrifying level. But there is hope.
- There are around 150,000 prostitutes working in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital city.
- 74% of them are estimated to be HIV+.
- Nearly every girl working in a bar in Addis is a prostitute. Young, attractive girls can earn Birr 100 (£6.00/$8.68) a trick but older women working in the slums charge as little as Birr 5 (£0.30/$0.43).
- A prostitute’s career path is always down hill.
Ellilta-Women at Risk’s ultimate aim is for every woman to leave prostitution and live a fulfilled life with self‐respect and dignity. Over 90% of women (360+) who have passed through E-WAR’s twelve months rehabilitation programme have succeeded in permanently leaving prostitution and reintegrating into society.
Resources to learn more and how you can help: