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Photos by © Tsion Haileselassie
“You are trying to come between my god and me. Most of us are praying to have a child, but you are trying to take them away!”
It’s just another day at work for Helina, a 24-year-old sexual health entrepreneur on the streets in a neighbourhood outside Addis Ababa in Ethiopia. At times, people are less than enthusiastic to hear from her. Yet, she offers a vital service and one that many people have never had access to before. Helina provides young women like herself with information about sexual and reproductive health services and products, and tells them where and how to access them safely.
The importance of Helina’s work cannot be underestimated in a country where 40% of the population has an unmet need for contraception and 38% of women have unintended pregnancies. As a result, many women will seek an abortion, yet an estimated half of all abortions in Ethiopia are unsafe, leading to death in many cases. It is not widely known that abortions are legally available in Ethiopia. This is mainly due to the stigma associated with abortion. Yet, one conversation at a time, Helina is changing that. This is her story.
Helina fell into the role when she was accessing sexual health services herself through another entrepreneur, or ‘Tiko Pro’ as they are called. Tiko is a mobile system that motivates young women through an incentive programme to make positive choices regarding their sexual and reproductive health. Helina was recruited as a Tiko Pro and now informs and refers other young women to healthy products and services and to interest them in becoming entrepreneurs themselves. In turn, she earns reward points within the Tiko system, which she can use in the local shops to buy essential products for her family.
“With the extra money I earn, I can now buy milk and pampers for my baby.”
This is the neighbourhood on the outskirts of the capital city, Addis Ababa, where Helina lives and now works. She is spreading information about and access to key services, that are still highly contentious, such as where to access a safe abortion. Here you can see the gates outside a youth centre in the area, where young people come to hang out and where Helina recruits many other young women.
“The job is sometimes really hard. People often insult me, claiming I’m making a bigger profit elsewhere, but they don’t understand what family planning is. I use to be like that too.”
Helina now gets her own monthly contraceptives from the same health centre she refers others to. Sexual and reproductive health products are available at the local health centre and through the Tiko system.
“The awareness inside myself has been the biggest thing that has changed. Before doing this work, I didn’t know what family planning was and I never used it. Now I understand how important it is.”
Here Helina and her friend Kalikidan, who she met through the job and who now often comes to visit her and her son. Being a new mother herself and with all the opposition to sexual and reproductive health and rights in Ethiopia it’s a difficult role to play, but she knows how important it is to give other young women a choice.
“The issue of abortion is still hard for me, but when I find a girl that needs help, I always tell her where she can access the service safely. My mom also had a hard time with that when I started this job, but I convinced her that it’s a safe solution for so many young girls that are in real trouble.”
For many women, like Helina and the young women she speaks with, it’s about choice and having enough information and support to make empowered choices, whatever your choice might be. Here she is recruiting another woman into the Tiko programme.
“but now I can work and also help other women that were in my position before.”
Helina takes the ‘Tiko miles’ – the reward points that she has earned – to the shops and market, where she can exchange them for food and other household products.
“Through this work I’ve been able to not only gain a profit, but develop important business skills, which I want to build on in the future.”
Alongside her work as a sexual health entrepreneur, Helina takes care of her young son and does household chores. The flexibility the job provides allows her to combine it with her responsibilities at home. She is currently the only member of her family working.
“Being able to empower other women to make smart and healthy choices has been an important part of this work for me.”
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