Ethiopia’s strong economic growth and geopolitical situation has limited the influence of other countries, donors and agencies in respect of human rights and economic or social policy in the country.

Adult sex work is illegal in Ethiopia and although the law is not enforced, sex workers are not subject to the levels of violence and extortion by police that have been widely reported in other countries. Further, although poverty and poor labour conditions for women clearly incentivise women and girls to sell sex, sex work does not in most cases provide a way out of acute poverty in Ethiopia. Since 2012 the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia’s (FDRE) policy on poverty alleviation has included sex workers. It funds traditional EEPs operated at a local level and allows HIV programmes and faith-based non-governmental organisations (NGOs) to operate EEPs in conjunction with other services, although their purpose is not articulated.

Although homosexuality is illegal in Ethiopia, same-sex behaviour is not prosecuted because the government of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia views homosexuality as a low law enforcement priority. While this may suggest at first glance that the situation for same-sex attracted men is better in Ethiopia than in other countries that retain laws against homosexuality, in reality the illegality of same-sex relations functions throughout Ethiopian society to drive and justify social and economic exclusion and human rights abuses of samesex attracted people.


These case studies have been produced in collaboration with IDS and Cheryl Overs of Monash University, Australia.

Case study

This case study examining the situation of gay men in Ethiopia sought to articulate the dynamics of social and economic marginalisation in the lives of gay men and to gain insight into strategies for surviving socioeconomic inequality, political repression and high prevalence of HIV. To do this, it described the dynamics of legal, social and economic marginalisation in Ethiopia where strong opposition to homosexuality is formalised in law and policy and embedded across most public and private institutions. The study identifies some of the impacts of this exclusion and individual gay men and gay community responses, considers the influence of the international aid community and recommends ways to ensure that the benefits of rapid economic growth, development policy and advances in health sciences extend to all citizens of Ethiopia.

The sex work case study explored economic, legal and social issues that affect sex workers, with a particular focus on the role of poverty in sex workers' lives and the potential for poverty alleviation policies and programmes to help lift as many sex workers as possible out of poverty in order to reduce the exploitation, illness and violence associated with their work.


Given the risk of conducting primary research on this sensitive topic, advice about methodology for the study into homosexuality was sought from two gay Ethiopians residing abroad and the managers of two local non-governmental organisations (NGOs) that work with marginalised people. Following consultations with these key stakeholders, it was agreed that the research would be informed by a three-tiered methodology:

  • Participant observation facilitated by local partners The author spent individual and group time with local and expatriate gay men that included attending meetings where experiences and strategies were discussed, and observing some of the ‘gay nightlife’ of Addis Ababa. The observation included conversations with a market guide, a female sex worker, a condom seller and a taxi driver.
  • Consultations with key stakeholders, both in person and through electronic correspondence These included: representatives of NGOs that provide HIV care and prevention services; representatives of the USA and Netherlands governments and two consultants with longterm experience in international development agencies working in Ethiopia. The scope of fieldwork was limited to the capital city for both practical and ethical reasons.
  • Analysis of key national and international literature This included published peer-reviewed studies; law and government policies; and relevant secondary and grey literature. The difficulty of gathering information about SOGIE issues in Ethiopia has been noted. There are very few published studies and almost no statements by the government about homosexuality. Thus the literature presented in the report relies to a greater extent than usual on blogs, reports in syndicated newspapers and reports from UN documents and humanitarian organisations. 
In approaching the sex work case study, literature reviews and desk research were conducted to gather information about the economic, policy and legal environment in Ethiopia, and economic empowerment programming among sex workers in Ethiopia and internationally. The perspectives of sex workers and other key informants were gathered using an adapted version of the Rapid Policy Assessment and Response (RPAR). A partnership was established with an Addis Ababa-based sex worker group, Nikat, and the NGO Timret that operates sexual health services and education for sex workers throughout the country. Timret arranged in-country logistics including arranging and facilitating interviews during the fieldwork. Five small group interviews with 53 adult female sex workers took place in Addis Ababa, Shashamene and Bihar Dar in mid-2011.

Sex Workers, Empowerment and Poverty Alleviation in Ethiopia

  • Although the criminal law against adult sex work is not enforced, it does exacerbate poverty by depriving sex workers of the civil rights and access to services they need. 
  • To remove structural determinants of poverty the law should be removed to make way for sex workers to claim rights under labour and other administrative legal provisions and to benefit from antidiscrimination and other human rights law. 
  • The inclusion of sex workers in Ethiopia’s Social Protection Policy should be recognised and applauded. 
  • All adult women born in Ethiopia who sell sex so should be able obtain an ID card regardless of their location, background or other status.

Developing More Effective Strategies for Sex Work, Law and Poverty

  • Decriminalisation of sex work remains a priority
  • Evaluation needed of Economic Empowerment Programmes (EEP)
  • Legal recognition is a cost-effective and politically realistic intervention to improve lives of sex workers
  • Resources needed to research the efficacy of Biomedical HIV prevention and care

BOOSHTEE! Survival and Resilience in Ethiopia

  • Homosexuality is illegal in Ethiopia, same-sex behaviour is not prosecuted because the government views it as a low law enforcement priority 
  • The illegality of same-sex relations continues to drive and justify social and economic exclusion and human rights abuses of same-sex attracted people

Sex work and economic empowerment programmes in Ethiopia

  • Prostitution is not explicitly criminalised and sex work is wide-spread and conducted with relative openness.
  • The vast majority of sex workers are 'undocumented' which means they do not have access to basic services like healthcare and education, land rights and water, and the right to vote, open a bank account, or register a marriage or birth.
  • Interview with Beki Abi of DANA Social Club, Ethiopia

    Beki Aby is a leader in the LGBT community in Ethiopia. In 2013 he co-founded DANA Social Club, an informal collective that advocates for LGBT rights and provides members with support and information.

  • BLOG: LGBT Life, Rights and Health in Ethiopia

    To mark International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia (IDAHOT), Stephen Wood interviews Cheryl Overs to discuss the post-publication implications of her report on Ethiopian MSM communities and responses to it's findings in the community.