Established in 2010, NIKAT Charitable, has overcome odds to become the only sex worker-led organisation in Ethiopia. The group’s work has been greatly hampered by oppressive government laws that bar organisations from getting financial support from external doors and doing advocacy on human rights.
A regime change this year, has re-energised this sex worker-led group to serve its members.
For past 10 years, the civil society space in Ethiopia shrunk due to a restrictive law governing activities of Non Governmental Organisations especially those working on human rights.
The coming to power of youthful Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed has raised hope for change especially of Charities and Societies Proclamation law that heavily restricts the work of human rights organisations.
Recently, ASWA interviewed Dr Bisrate Markos, the program coordinator of NIKAT on the hopes and expectations of activists on the new regime.
Markos has been a volunteer consultant for NIKAT for the last 10 years mainly doing research and capacity building. At the start of this year, he took on a new role as a volunteer program coordinator. Due to government restrictions on organisational staffing and funding, NIKAT, relies heavily on volunteers.
Briefly tell us about NIKAT.
Nikat Charitable Association is a grass root community based local NGO, established by a group of sex workers in April 2010 and IS registered as an Ethiopian Residents Charity. The organisation’s main aim is to improve the living condition of poor women and female sex workers in Ethiopia and to address HIV and AIDS. The Association was first established in 2006 as a Community Based Organisation called Nikat Women’s Association, which made it a pioneer in its field. The organisation runs a Drop-in-Centre that provides a safe place to rest, get and share information on HIV and STI, peer-support, condoms, shower facilities, food and counselling to sex workers.
We work closely with government bodies such as the Ministry of Justice, Women, Children and Youth Affairs Office, Addis Ababa Finance & Economic Bureau, Addis Ababa Health Bureau, HIV and AIDS Control Office among others. We also carry outreach services to direct and direct and indirect stakeholders such as police officers, pimps, hotel, bar and traditional local drink houses called “Areke”.
How many staff members does your organisation have?
Nikat has been experiencing financial challenges for the last two years and a half due to political problems. Most of the staff except founding members have left and volunteers keep the organisation afloat.
How does NiKAT raise money for its programmes and sustaining outreach?
Founding members’, volunteer technical and financial contributions. Recently, we signed agreements with two funders for the coming two years.
Given the difficult political environment, how has it been for NIKAT working with sex workers?
NIKAT has overcome many odds to become the only sex worker-led organisation trusted by the community. Since its formation in 2010, the organisation has reached about 200,000 sex workers countrywide and the number is growing. However, Nikat’s capacity to reach and address the needs of such a large community is limited. Lack of funding has been our biggest challenge.
For the past two years, NIKAT has been in deep financial trouble barely able to run its core activities, however, things are looking up. We finalising on a working agreement with two funders; the Embassy of Netherlands in Ethiopia and US Government administered PEPFAR.
As things stand in law, is your oganisation expected to re-register every three years?
What restrictions did the law place on your organisation putting in mind that you work with different government organisations? Which areas have you worked directly with the government? Does the government for example provide condoms or any support financially or otherwise?
We always work with the government through other networks. Yes the government health facilities also provide service to our members through referral Linkages established. We quarterly provide working reports to Civil Society Agency, Ministry of Justice, Women, Children and Youth Affairs Office, Addis Ababa Finance & Economic Bureau, Addis Ababa Health Bureau.
There are restrictions to how we operate. We are not allowed to do advocacy with funding from international organisations. Consequently, our advocacy is supported through membership fees, and/or with locally raised funds.
There are also restrictions on administration cost. It cannot exceed 30% of the annual budget.
We cannot also engage in Income Generating Activities because our license does not allow.
The new PM has been hailed as a reformist, do you share these sentiments and do you think his government will work better with human rights organisations in your country?
So far, he has proven to be pro-human rights and is supportive of civil society. He has released political prisoners and has given human rights activists an audience signalling a change in approach. In the last two years, the civic space has shrunk considerably due to crackdown on activists and limitations on foreign funding. However, since he came into power, external donors are ready to support local organisations.
We are hopeful that the new political environment will make it easy for sex workers to organise, access vital services and donor support.
Are sex workers and other Key Populations excited by Abiy’s tenure?
Very much! Sex workers and other key populations are hopeful. He is open minded, willing to listen to the concerns of sex workers and other key populations despite the fact that Ethiopians are conservative. This has won him support from our community. For instance our member recently gave birth to boy and named him after Abiy. Generally, there is some sense of optimism.
What changes would Nikat like to see in terms of the law on NGOs that makes it hard to operate in Ethiopia and for organisations to get external funding?
We would like to be free to work on sex workers’ basic human rights and also access international funding and relevant support.
The NGO law does not allow us to work on human rights using funds from external sources.
In addition, we would like the government to allow our group to freely identify as a sex worker-led group. Due to restrictions, NIKAT identifies as a charitable association.
In addition, I believe amending the current laws encourage collaboration even with international human rights organisations. This will help us create appropriate networks and also attract necessary donor support especially from funders that solely provide grants to sex workers-led groups such as the Red Umbrella.
This will also allow NIKAT to work with other groups to build a strong civil society that can push for government accountability on human rights matters.
Hopefully, the overall transformation will help address discrimination and stigma against sex workers.
What is your organisation’s specific wish in regard to opening up the civil society space in Ethiopia?
NIKAT would like to work with the larger civil society and also see sex workers run for political offices such as parliamentary seats to amplify the voice of sex workers. We also want to be allowed to form a sex workers union to collectively advocate for members’ welfare.
What changes in the law would your organisation like to see changed or introduced especially in HIV programming and addressing issues facing sex workers and other Key Populations?
It is important to point out that sex work is not legal in Ethiopia. However, other laws make the working environment for sex workers harsh, demoralising and dehumanising. For example, the Penal Code of 1957 and the newly revised Criminal Code of 2005 refer to ‘prostitution’ as an immoral and degrading practice. This has led to poor working conditions and discrimination against sex workers and other key populations.
The perception that sex workers are HIV carriers has doubled the stigma, discrimination and violence sex workers face in their day-to-day lives. Inevitably, this has led to unaddressed mental health issues that are aggravated by the notion that sex workers can be rehabilitated. This has led to self-hate and in some cases self harm among sections of the community.
In addition, despite HIV prevention and treatment services being free, some sex workers living with HIV have been reported to opt for religious remedies (holy water, holy soil) to ‘cure’ the ‘curse’. As a result, many die without seeking proper treatment.
Therefore, NIKAT would like to see drastic changes in HIV programming to reach out to more sex workers and other Key Populations to encourage them to live positively.
Can you elaborate?
Yes. The country’s laws and HIV programming should take into account the specific issues facing sex workers. The HIV policy should consider social, economic, cultural and religious aspects that affect access to health services and attitudes towards prevention and treatment.
Policy makers should be aware of the fact that sex workers are not a homegenous group and avoid a straight jacket approach.
Rehabilitation to ‘alternative economic activities’ should not be used as a way to address poverty among sex workers. Transition from sex work should be a decision entirely left to an individual. Force and coersion should not be used as an economic emporwement tool.
Going forward, we would like organisations such as NIKAT that represent and work directly with sex workers co-opted in policy making and designing national programmes by governmental entities such as Ministry of Health, Labour and Social Affairs, Micro and Small Enterprises Development and Local Political. This will enhance knowledge sharing and reinforce key development aspects such as economic empowernment.
Does Ethiopia get funds from the Global Fund?
Yes, the government gets the funds, but few NGOs if any are involved in implementation projects. We hope the proposal writing exercise will be more open and inclusive in the coming funding cycle.