ADDIS ABABA, 2 October 2009 (PLUSNEWS) - The life of a domestic worker in Ethiopia is rarely an easy one. Often escaping a deeply impoverished existence in the rural areas, these women find themselves in employment hundreds of miles away from their hometowns as maids - or serategnas in the national language, Amharic.
A lack of education, minimal opportunity for normal interaction with society and anecdotal evidence of sexual activity and abuse have led health workers to classify domestic workers as a high-risk group for the contraction of HIV. To begin to address this issue, a pilot project was recently completed by the Washington DC-headquartered social marketing organization, DKT-Ethiopia, and the French oil company, TOTAL.
Dubbed Condoms and Kerosene, the project involved setting up an HIV/AIDS awareness and demonstration site at the Lions' TOTAL Station in Siddist Kilo, north of the capital, Addis Ababa, with the idea of reaching domestic workers at one of the few places they regularly visited outside work.
Because of their closeted existence, "traditional methods of social marketing do not reach them on a consistent basis; they even do not watch TV programmes as they are too busy in the kitchen", said Haileyesus Assefa, public affairs manager at TOTAL Ethiopia.
"As much of their income comes in-kind - in the form of food and shelter - they have little cash," Haileyesus added. "One of the few purchases they make on a regular basis is kerosene."
Over a 60-day period ending in June, DKT-Ethiopia marketers set up shop to demonstrate proper condom use and provide free prophylactics to domestic workers and anybody else who visited the Siddist Kilo fuel station.
One of the beneficiaries was 31-year-old Tsehay Tura, who works in a number of houses throughout the capital. HIV-positive and with two children, one of whom is also infected, Tsehay said she only became aware of the facts of HIV after she was infected. She says many domestic workers are equally ignorant when they arrive in Addis.
Low awareness, high risk
"Many are coming from rural areas and they do not have awareness; many are sexually active with guards and are also frequently raped by their masters or their master's children," she said.
"They go to night school and they might have affairs with their classmates," added TOTAL's Haileyesus.
Another potential pitfall for domestic workers is commercial sex work, which they frequently enter into if they run into problems with their employers. While sometimes preferable, the terms of employment are nevertheless incredibly harsh, with a working day of 18 hours, a paltry monthly salary of between US$9 and $15, and one day off per month.
"The anecdotal evidence is that many domestic workers become sex workers... this is one of the exit paths for them," said Ken Divelbess, project coordinator of DKT-Ethiopia. "There is very limited evidence about domestic workers in general; it could be 5 percent who become sex workers, it could be 90 percent.
"It is critical [to reach them] as we believe that the first month as a sex worker is the most dangerous, as that is when people can take advantage."
Conducted with the support of the Ethiopian Business Coalition against HIV/AIDS, the World Bank Institute's Rapid Results Institute and the local NGO, Timret Lehiwot (The Coalition for Life), the DKT-Ethiopia/TOTAL project reached more than 14,000 men and women and distributed approximately 35,000 condoms; its success has spawned discussions about conducting similar demonstrations across the city.