Giving ex-sex workers a new lease of life

THE SOCIETY for Family Health (SHF) Rwanda warehouse on King Faisal Hospital Road in Kacyiru is unlike any other warehouse you have seen.

THE SOCIETY for Family Health (SHF) Rwanda warehouse on King Faisal Hospital Road in Kacyiru is unlike any other warehouse you have seen.

For starters, it is manned almost exclusively by women, as opposed to muscular work men in overalls. That was the first thing that hit me when I paid a visit on a hot Thursday afternoon.

The second thing different about this sprawling warehouse is that it is not all work and no play. To soften the typically industrial air synonymous with warehouses, management has installed a huge stereo system that blares music to lend rhythm to the work at hand.

The girls and women who work here are tasked with one thing; packing condoms. The condoms, imported from Malaysia in bulk by SHF, arrive in the country as unpacked raw materials to enable branding that is tailored to the local market.

 When Candali Florienne, the associate warehouse manager ushered me in, she walked straight to the middle of the workstation and performed a dance move which immediately ignited a spark among the workforce. They cheered her on, while one came up to challenge her on the improvised dance floor. The mood had been set.

These women love their music, and it is impossible to imagine that they could ever work effectively without the backdrop of music to tap their feet to. Clearly a testament to the nature of their previous occupations.

Soon, a repetitive song titled Azonto from Nigeria came onto the stereo and, as if on cue, the whole warehouse was humming away. While their heads nodded to the music, their hands kept their steady paces, picking condoms from the heaps on their tables and packing them neatly in envelopes.

Each envelope takes in four condoms, which envelope is then packed in a dispenser, a box that contains 20 envelopes. The dispenser is then packed in a carton, and each carton is worth twelve dispensers.

The women who work here are not just any other women; they are self-confessed former sex workers with harrowing tales of the poverty, ignorance and destitution that pushed them into commercial sex work. They are the lucky few beneficiaries of a scheme by SHF to rehabilitate sex workers by giving them an alternative source of income. That alternative source of income is the work they are currently doing; packing condoms.

And who better to do this job than ex-prostitutes? After all, they are easily familiar with the thing already, condoms being a major feature of their former trade. But there is the symbolism to it too. Like Candali, the associate warehouse manager puts it; “we try to give opportunities to the most vulnerable members of society, and sex workers are very vulnerable.  They have children to look after, but no proper income. To get money, they have to go on the streets and sell sex. As an organization, we are trying to help them make money using their hands and not through selling sex.”

There is also the behavior change aspect to it. Many of these women didn’t know any other life outside prostitution, drinking and drugs.

Marcelline Mwegamirwa is a “veteran” at this condom-packing job. Before this, she had been an active sex worker at Sodoma in Gikondo.

Since the 1960s, truck drivers from East Africa have used Sodoma as a stopover. When the money-splashing truck crews arrived, locals in the area headed to Sodoma with anything they could sell to them. Needless to say, one of the most sought-after commodities was sex. The girls thronged Sodoma in droves to hook the drivers before they proceeded to Magerwa.

Mwegamirwa was one such girl. Now in her mid 40s, she confesses to having slipped into prostitution “because of poverty and love of an easy life.” A native of the Sodoma, Mwegamirwa recalls seeing other girls dressed in expensive clothes and shoes, and the inevitable question to herself; “why not me?” She joined the trade at 23.

She was in for a rude awakening. “Most of the men who buy us (prostitutes) don’t give us any value. Some clients are heavy drug addicts and alcoholics. I suffered many beatings and abuse,” she laments.

Even the good clothes and shoes she hoped to buy from her earnings remained a pipe dream. “On average, I would make between 20.000-50.000 francs per month, so it was a very bad life.

One day, the agency, Population Services International (PSI) visited Sodoma and met with prostitutes with a view to helping them out of the trade. That was 2003. “We were very happy. We knew it was the end of a bad job and the beginning of a good one.”

At SFH, she and her colleagues are paid according to the volume of work, which keeps fluctuating according to demand. During peak seasons, she makes up to 450,000 francs per month. The idea is to instill a work ethic that emphasizes hard work and efficiency, hence the “pay-as-you-work” arrangement. 

With their savings, they were encouraged to pool resources in a corporative. The result of this has been the Coperative Rwiyemezeminima Dufatanye, which currently boasts 90 members. The cooperative has a furniture and appliance stall at Gikondo-Magerwa, where Mwegamirwa hopes to join other members when her warehouse job ends.

“Prostitution is not a job. It is death and it is shameful,” she observes.

The organization employs the women on a short-term rotational basis, in order to reach as many sex workers as possible. The idea is to set them up with some savings, which they then invest in an income-generating project of their choice.

Besides condoms, the women also pack family planning kits like cycle beads, injectables, pills, implants, and malaria pharmaceuticals, which SFH later disburses to the most vulnerable communities.  

Another ex-prostitute, Jase Mukeshimana folds her left hand jumper sleeve to reveal a long scar inflicted by a razor cut. The injury was inflicted on her by rival sex workers in Nyamirambo, where she plied her trade.

Mukeshimana fell into prostitution after her husband divorced her, accusing her of barrenness. From that year, 2003, she sold sex to put food on the table. “I was a lone after my husband chased me. My family was in the village in Ngoma, and going there meant digging. I decided to stay in Nyamirambo. At first I was happy with the job because at least I could eat and pay rent,” she reveals. On average, she made about 100.000 francs a month.

With her small savings, she had managed to erect a small fruits stall in Nyamirambo, but is bitter with local authorities for evicting her. Her focus now is on saving up money from her warehouse job and, hopefully, start a small bar/resto for her subsistence.

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