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Human Trafficking in Ethiopia: Risk Factors and its Relation to the Wollo Sex Trade

by Hanna Rabah

By Krista Odom, Program Coordinator

They say the most beautiful women in Ethiopia come from Wollo. The women there will make you coffee and are so accommodating. You will find that half are Christian and half are Muslim, and some may speak Arabic. It is where you can go to see women dance the traditional Eskesta, where they bop and weave their shoulders in a hypnotic rhythm. This is where the best seretegna, domestic servants, come from; they cook, clean, take care of the babies, do your shopping, work for 16 hours a day, and never take a day off. And, on average, the cost for one month is less than you pay for a single 8-hour day of childcare in the US. For these reasons, the women of Ethiopia and Wollo, in particular, are sought after in the Middle East, Europe, and other parts of Africa as domestic servants.

Across Ethiopia, the draw to leave for work is intense. Women are promised a few years of housework in exchange for returning to Ethiopia with enough money to set them and their families up for the rest of their lives. And at home, they face little to no opportunities; in Ethiopia, the unemployment rate stands at 24%, pre-COVID. As stated by the World Bank, Ethiopia’s rural youth are becoming landless and lacking job opportunities, which often leads to increased migration. And Wollo is an Ethiopian epicenter for migration and trafficking from the administrative capital of Dessie.

Everyone in Dessie has a sister, cousin, daughter, or friend who has gone to Dubai, Saudi, or Poland for work. Of those who have left, far fewer have come back and far fewer have come back with the wages they were promised. The numbers of women and men who migrate are unclear. Based on legal migration, approximately 100,000 Ethiopians leave per year for migrant work related reasons; however, this is a fraction of the whole picture. There are countless others who are trafficked illegally and left uncounted in those official numbers. Traffickers promise expedited leaving; the process for obtaining a passport in Ethiopia is long and frustrating, especially since the process was recently centralized. Traffickers promise higher wages, guarantee jobs, and use references. For young women who are the targets this seems legitimate; however, those who have been illegally trafficked are often severely mistreated, and there are accounts of non-receipt of wages, physical and sexual abuse, abandonment, and death.

Those who have migrated, especially illegally, and return with their wages are lucky. There are many more who come back with nothing, or a half Ethiopian child, or they never come back at all. And the prospects for those women who do come back, without the promised riches, are left in a much direr situation than when they left. They are now older, and some would be seen as spoiled for marriage. Dessie clubs and streets are lined with women at night, many of whom returned empty handed or with a child from working abroad. Since Wollo women are considered the most beautiful, this is where men come to buy women for the night, and the system of trafficking feeds into the system of sex work in Dessie.

Currently the Ethiopian government does not meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking, set forth by the UN, but is making significant efforts to do so. Countries where Ethiopian women are commonly trafficked to are also making efforts to eliminate trafficking, including in 2013 when Saudi Arabia dispelled many illegal workers. However, this exacerbated the risk of non-payment of wages.

Human trafficking is a human rights violation, and there must be more efforts directed toward its prevention, including enhancing victim-centered criminal justice responses. Additionally, women in Ethiopia vulnerable to trafficking must also have more employment opportunities available to them in order to further prevent human trafficking.

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