Sex workers hope new Ethiopia PM’s reform agenda includes review of oppressive NGO law


Since taking power four months ago, Ethiopia’s new Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed, has been branded a ‘reformist’, a tag that has resonated well with his supporters.

Abiy has acted swiftly to clean the blot on the country’s human rights record by past regimes that have been accused of gross violations including torture and extrajudicial killing of political dissidents.

So far, he has lifted the state of emergency first declared in 2016 and reinstated in February of 2018, ordered the release of thousands of prisoners and unblocked hundreds of websites and TV channels.

Internationally, one of the biggest accolades is ending the boarder war with Eritrea, which has been going on for years.

This has made it possible for citizens of the two countries to freely travel in and out of their borders for the first time in years. Mr Abiy has also embraced Somalia to foster peace in the Horn of Africa. These diplomatic overtures are expected to change political dynamics and end constant state of war with and among Ethiopia’s neighbours.

While the PM has scored noteworthy political goals at home and abroad, human rights defenders are waiting to see how he handles the controversial Charities and Societies Proclamation law enacted in 2009 to clamp down on formal civil society through stringent registration, funding and operational requirements.

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 promotion of equality. It also prohibits organisations 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 organisations 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.

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’.