Society looks down on them with disgust but beyond the work they do are tormenting tales of how they ply their trade. They are often harassed by authorities, physically and sexually assaulted by clients, and subjected to different forms of public and discreet humiliation.
The trends in commercial sex work are not limited and go from the illiterate and impoverished to ‘high class’ girls already employed or in school. The latter, however, have developed a tight-knit network and don’t have to parade the streets. They don designer outfits, wear chic perfume and reside in nice houses.
Tasha (not real name) 23, the student/sex worker
A friend, one of the most reliable people I know, when contacted for this particular assignment, did not disappoint. He made arrangements to introduce me but after assuring Tasha that she could trust me. Tasha’s life as an upscale sex worker took off when she was 20 years while in her first year at university. Her parents pay her tuition and give her a little pocket money but she needs a job to maintain her lifestyle.
Residing in the residential part of Kicukiro off Kagarama trading centre, her house is inside a big fence and gate with a spacious compound and a DSTV dish. The living room is well-furnished; artifacts hang from the wall, a 25inch television sits on a big glass cabinet. It is a three bedroom house with two bathrooms.
Her maid is a middle aged woman and refers to her as “madame”. Tasha is a full-time student at one of the independent universities in Kigali and during the day, when she is not at campus, she is either doing her assignments or planning how she will operate that day. Her clientele ranges from the rich and working corporates.
She got into the trade through a friend who was already established.
“I had a friend who was living a good life and I wondered if her parents were millionaires. My friend told me she only asked for tuition from her parents so I asked her to introduce me to her network and she did. It was hard because clients are usually skeptical about the girls they deal with but after a while they gain confidence. Slowly, I’ve managed to get more clients.”
Tasha is a fourth year student majoring in International Relations. She hangs in Kigali’s biggest hotspots and will never be caught drinking beer. “I only take wines and liquor because I have to maintain my standards and make a good impression. The better the impression, the higher the chances of getting high-class clients,” she says. Tasha stays with a friend but cannot tell her that she is a sex worker. “My friend thinks I have rich parents who stay in Burundi, because that’s what I told her. I feel guilty about lying to her.”
During the course of the day, she received numerous phone calls scheduling appointments with her but she zeroed in on one client who she says doesn’t stress her and pays well. We had lunch at around 3:00pm and later she started to prepare herself. Tasha gets her clients through trusted references and sometimes randomly picks a guy, especially from house parties or weddings. She usually talks to them first and later decides if they can be trustworthy and harmless to give her business.
At 8:00pm we headed to an upscale hotel and found the client waiting. His wedding band was visible. I sat at an adjacent table drinking tea while she ordered a glass of white wine and her client a glass of cocktail. The place had a live band playing in the background. They ordered for food and the client paid.
They engaged in a conversation as they had dinner. After two hours it was time for business, they headed upstairs to the rooms. Later that night, Tasha told me that she makes Rwf30, 000 to Rwf50, 000 per night depending on the client. She charges more for expatriates because she believes they have more money.
She says most of her clients are married or single but stable men with good jobs, nice cars and houses and can afford nice places to transact business.
“Such men don’t stress me. They know how to treat a lady, can afford and they usually know what they want. But young guys are broke and they always want to come to my place which I can’t do.” Married men usually want to do their business and go back home, that leaves me with the opportunity for another client.”
Tasha almost shed a tear when I asked her about her friends. “I have lived a double life for four years now and I pray to God that my friends don’t find out soon because it would shatter them. I have a group of girls I usually move with and none of them knows about my work; I try to be as discreet as possible,” she says.
Tasha goes to church every Sunday to thank God for protecting her and “to ask him to forgive my sins.” Tasha says she is HIV negative and hasn’t been raped or contracted any sexually transmitted diseases. “Many people don’t make it this far in this business. I’m grateful to God for that,” she says.
This job comes with its fair share of problems that include physical assault from certain clients. Tasha mentions that she was once attacked by a violent client. “There’s a time that I almost gave up on this work after a client tried to strangle me, slapped me, pulled my wig off and left me with a scar. I ran away leaving my handbag behind. I was traumatised and scared to do this again but I continued because I knew there are some good guys I have dealt with that treat me well.”
Clients who open up
Tasha says that most of her clients have a series of problems that they talk about with her. “Some of my clients talk about their relationships (past or present) or problems they are going through. Others tell me they just don’t have time to invest in a personal relationship and/or they want some no strings attached sex.”
Tasha has met clients who complain that their partners are boring in bed and rather than have an affair, they seek the services of a sex worker. “While most people out there believe that clients are either sex addicts and sex workers are victims or home wreckers, this simply isn’t true,” she adds.
Tasha might be a sex worker for now but she has dreams of having a better life. “People should know that I also have set goals for myself, this work is strictly business and not for intimate relationships. Yes, I might have mastered the art of sexual pleasure but that’s personal. I want to be a professional who analyzes regional matters and tries to create solutions. If I can work in a place like African Union, East African Community, Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), it would be a huge chance to put my University education to use.
Tasha has no regrets, she says: “I don’t want to regret anything I’ve done because I joined this profession with a clear conscience and regretting it would mean that I made a mistake. Sometimes, I feel like I’ve lost my self-esteem and worry about my education but I always dust myself and get back on my feet.”
Nonetheless, she admits that if she had an opportunity to do it all over again, she would. “I miss my old schedule. I am an educated woman, who is only doing this work because I have no option.”
Efforts to stamp out commercial sex workers
Oda Gasinzigwa, Minister of Gender and Family Promotion says a study regarding prostitution is still being carried out. “It’s not only a women’s issue but the community’s concern as well. This is why there are laws in place to deal with perpetrators. Commercial sex is not done by only women and girls, the men and boys get involved and this is why we have to integrate everyone while dealing with this social vice,” Gasinzigwa says.
She also says that as a way of dealing with the problem as a social vice, they have engaged men in programmes with the help of Rwanda Men’s Resource Centre (RWAMREC).
Rwanda Men’s Resource Centre conducts mass sensitisation and education programmes, media campaigns and public lectures, mentoring programmes to engage men and youth in Gender Based Violence (GBV) prevention, positive masculinity, positive cultural norms and values associated with life skills and orientation in their daily interaction with women counterparts.
“As a way of dealing with commercial sex work, we are working with all stakeholders such as the Ministry of Education and Ministry of Health in regard to the promotion of girls’ rights. For instance how girls can lead a dignified life by knowing their rights in order to deal with cases like teenage pregnancy which in some cases is caused by indulging in commercial sex,” Gasinzigwa reveals.
She adds: “Mentorship programmes done by women leaders by going to schools to talk to girls about career, dignity and instilling confidence through testimonies is another way in which Rwandan girls are being sensitised in leading a dignified life hence not getting into commercial sex and its related dangers.”
She also says that gender clubs in schools are helping to create awareness of the social vice that both girls and boys should be protected from.
The minister adds that the community dialogue known as Umugoroba W’ababyeyi, an initiative that gives parents a forum to discuss and share experience on how to solve family issues, is being used to sensitise parents in villages on how to talk to their children about reproductive health issues.
“Besides the environmental factor influence, the family has a big role to play in order for the youth not to go into commercial sex. Family is crucial in addressing the issue thus the importance of the Umugoroba W’ababyeyi initiative,” Gasinzigwa says.
In Rwanda, as it is globally, commercial sex is mostly a result of young women desperate for quick means of survival or quick wealth.
Judith Opot, a lecturer at Mount Kenya University, says that dialogue with the youth, especially students, is the best way to address the issue of students that get into commercial sex.
“Accusation pushes people away; as a way of sensitising the youth, especially those that are already doing commercial sex, dialogue is the best way to go. If we teach the students that besides commercial sex being immoral, they will lose their dignity.”
She also adds that most of the girls get into commercial sex because of peer pressure and the love for ‘easy money’.
“There is a need to show girls the risks involved with the trade,” Opot says.
WHAT DO YOU THINK ABOUT PROSTITUTION?
Ruth Kanyange, Supermarket manager
Legalizing prostitution in its nature is dangerous. I think women would be lazy to work since all they have to do to earn an income is sleep with men and no one will point a finger because it is a legal job.
So, imagine a kid is asked in class what she wants to be in the future and she goes, “I want to be a professional sex worker”. That kind of society would be doomed. Legalising it won’t make it any fancier, it will still be a job where people sell their bodies for money and it is degrading.
Shema Didier Ufitinema, I.T expert
Many people decry prostitution but do you know how many go looking for them in the dead of the night. Instead of risking a person’s life by sneaking away through bushes and hiding from police, why not legalise it and we have a safer life.
Criminalising the industry is an indicator of discrimination and this can only result into unsafe measures of engaging in sex and poor working conditions.
There have been stories of girls going to Uganda to work as sex workers over a weekend and they come back, is this necessary? I think it should be legalised and various measures put in place to guide the industry.
Ambrose Ngarukiye, Hotelier
Prostitution is a harmless act, I mean look all around you today and show me one person who is not fornicating? It should not, by definition, be considered a crime but rather a type of business where business can be mixed with pleasure.
People in nature have different tastes of professions they want to engage in, have different talents and aspire to be judged differently.
The same can be applied to prostitution because there’s a reason a person will choose to sleep with a prostitute rather than another girl. Legalise prostitution and you will have a better perspective about life.
Regina Umulisa, Customer Service agent
Don’t get me wrong but who is pushing for this, men? I believe no woman in their right mind would advocate for the legalization of prostitution. It is philandering men who are pushing for such rights so that they can freely exploit women.
Have countries like Germany, which have legalised prostitution gained from it? No. Instead they have young productive people getting wasted from brothels. If certain people engage in it, they should do it at their risk and be punished once they are caught.