Prostitution in Eritrea
Prostitution in Eritrea is legal and regulated. Official figures state there are around 2,000 prostitutes in the country, who are not allowed to operate near schools, hospitals, and churches. According to the 2009 Human Rights Reports, security forces occasionally follow women engaged in prostitution and arrest those who had spent the night with a foreigner. Some women enter prostitution due to poverty.
Prostitutes are known locally as "shermuta" in Arabic, or "mnzerma" and "me'amn" in Tigrinya.
After the colonisation by Italy in the 1880s, prostitution flourished to take care of the sexual needs of the Italian troops and colonialists in the country. Prostitution was encouraged by the authorities to discourage mixed marriages between Italians and locals. Brothels were opened and local women were recruited, by coercion if necessary, to work in them. These brothels were subsidised by the authorities. There was a surge in the 1930s with the build up of troops prior to the Second Italo-Ethiopian War. Women from the rural areas migrated to the towns and cities to service the needs of the single Italian men. In the major towns such as Assab, Asmara and Massawa, prostitution was common in the bars of the "native quarters". This situation continued through the WW2, including after the Italians were displaced by the British.
Following the federation with Ethiopia in 1950, the Ethiopian troops stationed in Eritrea, and the American troops at Kagnew Station continued the demand for prostitution. Prostitution increased during the 1970s with the build-up of the Ethiopian garrisons in the area. In the 1980s there were many prostitutes in Assab, Asmara and Massawa, many of them Tigrayans. Many worked in bars owned by successful prostitutes.
During the Eritrean War of Independence, Eritrean girls in occupied territories we required to sign up to join the army at 16. There is evidence many were used as prostitutes by the soldiers. At time of liberation by the Eritrean People's Liberation Front and independence, there were 4,000 prostitutes in the country, and 2,000 Ethiopian women were deported in an attempt to curtail prostitution. With the spread of HIV in the 1990s, prostitution was regulated and sex workers were required to have a monthly health check.
Forms of prostitution
- Street walkers: These prostitutes work mainly at night seeking clients on the street.
- Home based prostitutes: These prostitutes receive clients in their homes.
- Bar owners: These practice prostitution as an additional source of income in the bars they own.
- Bar ladies: They seek clients in the bars they work in. They may or may not be paid by the bar owners.
- Small drinking house prostitutes: They work in local drinking houses or tearooms and use prostitution to supplement their income.
- Brothels: There are a number of brothels, which are usually also drinking houses.
- Call girls: In recent time, with the emergence of cell phones, call girls now operate in the country.
HIV is a problem in the country, although it has one of the lowest prevalence rates in Sub-Saharan Africa. In the 1990s prostitution was regulated and monthly health checks carried out to try and stop the spread of infections. 25 clinics and hospitals gave free testing for prostitutes. Social workers used community elders to try and spread the message of safe sex and condom use to prostitutes and clients.
Campaigns have targeted high risk groups, including sex workers. As a result, the HIV prevalence amongst sex workers has fallen from 22% in 2002, to 10.4% in 2014. Condom use by sex workers had risen to 95% in 2014.
Child prostitution is a problem in the country. The law criminalises child prostitution. The minimum age for consensual sex is 18. Penalties for conviction of the commercial sexual exploitation of children include imprisonment. Crimes were seldom reported, and punishment rarely applied. Data on the extent of child prostitution is not available.
Eritrean adults and children are subjected to sex trafficking abroad, primarily in Sudan, Ethiopia, and Libya. Some women and girls are subjected to sex trafficking within the country. Some Eritrean women and girls travel to Gulf States for domestic work but are subsequently subjected to sex trafficking. Smaller numbers of Eritrean women and girls are subjected to sex trafficking in South Sudan, Sudan, and Israel; reportedly, some Eritrean men are vulnerable to sex trafficking in Israel. Some Eritrean military and police officers are complicit in trafficking crimes along the border with Sudan.
The United States Department of State Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons ranks Eritrea as a Tier 3 country.
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