It is an island of tranquillity in an ocean of squalor, poverty and the hustle and bustle of Africa’s largest open-air market. The small garden tucked away in the Merkato market in the capital, Addis Ababa, is a refuge for hundreds of children, many living on the streets or forced into prostitution by poverty.
"This is a place where they can escape from it all and just be themselves," said Anania Admasu, who heads the local charity Children Aid Ethiopia (Chad-Et).
The Merkato area is a microcosm of the enormous social and economic problems facing the country: poverty, poor sanitation, a lack of education, and HIV/AIDS. Infection rates for the virus are higher than almost any other area of Addis Ababa, and only one-third of children get the chance of completing their schooling. Local community leaders estimate that just one in 10 families in the Merkato slum areas have access to safe water or sanitation.
The garden, which is in the heart of the city, is designed to provide children with a "green space" and help them raise their awareness about their environment. "This is one of the worst slums in Addis Ababa, and people have no space," said Anania, whose Chad-Et came up with the idea of such gardens.
"The area is congested and overpopulated, and in the Merkato the children are not allowed to be themselves," he said. "Here in the garden, they can be children. This is a place where they come and stay and enjoy the environment. It provides an enormous amount of satisfaction for people who want to sit down and reflect. It is also a safe area free from the pimps who operate here. We also hope that people will learn from this and realise that even in small spaces they can create these gardens, this haven."
MORE THAN HALF A MILLION STREET CHILDREN
According to the labour and social affairs ministry, some 150,000 children live on the streets in Ethiopia, about 60,000 of them in the capital. However, aid agencies estimate that the problem may be far more serious, with nearly 600,000 street children country-wide and over 100,000 in Addis Ababa.
The United Nations Children’s Fund says the problem may be getting worse because of the HIV/AIDS pandemic and falling incomes. HIV/AIDS has already orphaned 1 million children in Ethiopia.
Begging is rife, with many children working to escape poverty. The ministry estimates that 40 percent of children start work before the age of six, often working a 30-hour week.
Poverty is also leading to growing numbers of child prostitutes, according to NGOs, and the phenomenon is in turn exacerbated and complicated by the HIV/AIDS crisis. Save the Children-Denmark (SC-D) said child prostitution was "increasing at an alarming rate" in the capital, but could not cite statistics. It said children as young as 13 were being lured to the city and thrust into the sex trade. "Intervention is clearly needed as a matter of national urgency," said SC-D.
CAUSES OF CHILD PROSTITUTION
The children often identified lack of work, family deaths, poor education or unwanted pregnancy as factors driving them into prostitution. Many of the child prostitutes have been victims of serious sexual and physical abuse. Almost half the children said they had been raped before ending up on the streets, with one-third of them becoming pregnant as a result, some resorting to back-street abortions.
"The abortions were performed mainly by [practitioners of] traditional medicine, and in the street illegally," said the SC-D. "The dangers of this are numerous, and include death," it added in a seven-page study, which revealed that some 60 percent of the prostitutes in Addis Ababa originated from outside the city.
This is a picture regularly witnessed by Anania and his co-workers at Chad-Et. "There are many pushing and pulling factors that mean children get involved in prostitution or end up on the streets," he said. He noted that the central bus station in Merkato acted as a magnet for pimps as thousands of people arrived in the capital or used the buses each day.
"The livelihood of many families living around here is closely linked to the bus terminal, selling drinks, food and so on," he added. "Many young girls come to Addis Ababa from the country in search of better opportunities and they end up around this place. This is their first experience of the city. Unless they have someone to help them, they may end up in the hands of the pimps, who offer to find them jobs or find their relatives. We see a lot of children like this."
THE HIV/AIDS FACTOR
Anania pointed out that fighting HIV/AIDS was "futile" without tackling child prostitution, but acknowledged that this would be a tough task. "We cannot stop them being child prostitutes, but we can show them there are alternatives," he said. "We talk openly with the children about prostitution."
He told IRIN that when the children first started coming to Chad-Et, they explained that their clients would pay more for sex without using condoms. "Now they will not do this," added Anania. "At the very least they should be aware of the risks and know the dangers."
Chad-Et offers children a three-year course during which they can be taught skills to help them get jobs and received counselling aimed at changing their behaviour and attitudes. Chad-Et has also set up a theatre and drama group which performs in the Merkato. Anania says more than two-thirds of the children taking such courses subsequently quit prostitution, noting, however that there was always a hard-core element.
Child rights training and working with the local community is key to solving the problem. Anania said community involvement was crucial in the effort to overcome the stigma surrounding HIV/AIDS.
Chad-Et also operates innovative schemes to help the spiralling numbers of people living with HIV/AIDS, making use of the tiny shacks and spaces people live in. Under one pilot project, it is teaching local groups to use abandoned oil drums as portable vegetable patches, whereby families are helped to improve their diets.
IMPORTANCE OF EDUCATION
Anania stressed the importance of education, saying it was vital to halting the spread of HIV/AIDS. The government’s Central Statistics Authority estimates that the overall literacy rate in the country is just 31 percent, and only 25 percent among women. Moreover, at present, only 25 percent of children are completing their eight grades at school.
Chad-Et is trying play its part in the effort towards overcoming the prevailing education problems. It has constructed a school next to the garden, which now caters for about 300 children who never before had the chance of education. Watching the children leave the classrooms to play in the garden, Anania said real changes were being made to their lives and hope was being restored.
"It may be a small garden, but it is offering these children some hope," he said. "The children can see that with just a small bit of effort they can change the environment they live in for the better."