Saturday, May 5, 2012

Marathoner Shetaye Bekele runs from sex trade

The 13.1 miles Shetaye Bekele runs in Pittsburgh's half-marathon on Sunday amount to a short leg of a long journey. But they will bring her closer to everything she wants and take her further from all she abhorred.

Without options or recourse, the slight, young woman from Ethiopia worked as a prostitute in her country's capital, Addis Ababa, a victim of rape and the sex trafficking that thrives there. In May 2010, International Crisis Aid, a humanitarian organization, got her off the streets, into a safe house and headed toward a new life.

"I was really very excited," Bekele, 19, said through a translator on Thursday. "The first thing I thought was, 'I can run.' And now I'm running."

ICA Ethiopia director Betty Ghebrehiwot, who accompanied Bekele halfway around the world on her first trip to the United States, does the translating. She handled Bekele's "rescue" -- when, after 1 1/2 years of soul-sapping degradation and shame, Bekele heard about ICA and asked for help.

"We just took her home" to one of several ICA safe houses, Ghebrehiwot said.


In her only other half-marathon, in February, Bekele finished eighth among about 40,000 runners in India, according to ICA. As a competitor, she naturally wants to cross the finish line with a good time. As a woman who survived a horrific existence, the trip -- which in this case included two days to get here -- is as important as the destination.

"I'm happy to run," Bekele said. "I really love it. If I was not running, I don't think I would be happy to live."

"It's almost like a fairy tale -- a great, new chapter in a young girl's life," ICA founder and president Pat Bradley said.

When she worked the streets, Bekele, who stands 5-foot-3 and weighs 100 pounds, could not run as she did when younger.

"I felt like I was not a living person," she said. "It was like living in total darkness."

In Ethiopia and other poorer countries, poverty lures girls and women into the sex trade.

"It drives the girls to go to where they shouldn't go," Bradley said. "There's no out for them."

Bekele, who grew up in a small, farming village, ended up having to support her brothers and sisters after her parents died. One of her sisters was abducted and raped, and later died in childbirth. Told of job and education opportunities in the capital, she went there, but things went horribly wrong. Soon after finding work in a bar, she was raped for money that went to the proprietor.

"I really hoped when I left the village I could run and study," she said. "In Addis, it was not what I was promised. I was mistreated."

She left the bar, shamed, and fell in with a group of girls selling their bodies to pay rent.

"It's the only way to survive," Bradley said. "These girls get into debt, and they pay their debt."

Other factors create the environment that breeds such behavior, including political and legal corruption and a woman's place in society.

"Women are property" in many places, said Rebecca McDonald, founder and president of Women at Risk International. "Any time a country has a low view of women, it sets them up."

Bekele began running in eighth grade while attending a school two hours from home. It shortened the trip, and she found she loved it. Now, she hopes to one day compete in the Olympics. Rather than let the past drag her down, it strengthens her.

"I know when I came out that whatever challenge I had in the future, I would do it," she said.

She is studying accounting -- "because I love math" -- and wants to help other young women in the straits she found herself in. She calls them "my sisters back in the darkness."

On Sunday, regardless of the weather, Bekele will run in the light.