Sex workers complain of lack of legal options

To be called a ‘prostitute’ is among the worst epithets a woman can receive. It undermines the very essence of a woman’s greatest value, her reproductive abilities and strips her of dignity or what is familiarly known as ‘Agaciro’ (dignity).
Figures show that there are about 15,792 known female sex workers countrywide.  Net photo.
Figures show that there are about 15,792 known female sex workers countrywide. Net photo.

To be called a ‘prostitute’ is among the worst epithets a woman can receive. It undermines the very essence of a woman’s greatest value, her reproductive abilities and strips her of dignity or what is familiarly known as ‘Agaciro’ (dignity).

In Rwanda, Article 221 of the Penal Code stipulates that, “Any person who practices the profession of prostitution shall be liable for a term of imprisonment ranging from six months to three years and a fine ranging from fifty thousand to five hundred thousand Rwanda Francs.”

Figures show that there are about 15,792 known female sex workers countrywide.

In October 2012, parliamentarians decided that regardless of their criminal histories, they needed protection following the deaths of over 18 sex workers last August. Sadly, according to Tacienne Mukyabakazi, a sex worker who plies her trade in Gatsata, things have not changed very much. “Prostitutes are still facing the same dangers,” she says.

‘‘But we are not as naïve as they were last year. We conduct personal security amongst ourselves. All of us girls know who has slept with what man and where. We do not want to lose any more girls, those we lost are enough,” she continues.

“Sometimes, due to the general lack of money, the girls use bushes and the backs of restaurants for business.

‘‘Those are the ones who face the most danger, because there we cannot determine whom they have gone with. Most times those girls end up bloody and bruised as the clients know there is no one within hearing distance in case the girl decides to call for help”, she narrates.

“The greatest danger is our children, Olivia Nyiranziyumvira, another sex worker says. ”For us we can rough it. We always have. The children on the other hand cannot. I remember when I had just given birth to my first child I was evicted by my landlord. He did not care that I was still sore and weak and that my child was just a few days old. To him, I lost all my rights to humanity when I became a prostitute,’’  she remembers. ‘‘Because Tacienne (Mukyabakazi) had not yet rented the house we live in now, I had nowhere to go. I stayed on the street till morning while my newborn almost froze to death. I was very scared as I wandered the streets later in search for warmth for my baby. I will not forget that night.” Nyiranziyumvira recounts.

Most of the sex workers’ children stay in the same houses as their mothers. Shockingly, very often the clients who visit their mothers prey on them too.

But sex workers have been accused of being uncooperative, atleast in some cases. ‘‘We have tried to do what we can for these children but with sex workers it is a tricky business. They do not like other women meddling in their affairs. Some of them will refuse any help and will spurn your help in case you offer it,” Cassilde Mukamakombe, the manager of Asoferwa Community Develoment site in Gatsata said.

However, she says that for those who are willing to be helped, their children are helped in terms of education, food and shelter. “We will never turn away a person in need! Sex workers are people, women as it is. It is simply cruel to turn away a sex worker because of her profession,” Mukamakombe continues.

However, the sex workers confess that there is still a high rate of contracting HIV/AIDS. “I cannot turn down an offer of Rwf 5000 for unprotected sex. I have my son’s education and landlord to think about!” Mukyabakazi confesses.

She says that local NGO’s hold seminars on HIV prevention and how to live positively with the virus. “We are, in collaboration with district officials and MIGEPROF, with funds from USAID, hold workshops for the sex workers. On top of that, the Government has offered to help any sex worker who wants to leave the profession,” she asserts.

“Our main duty is to advocate for their protection. They are citizens of Rwanda and they have a right to live as much as any other human being. We will continue advocating for their rights and when needed we will offer a helping hand,” says Dr Celestin Sebuhoro, leader of the Rwandan Parliamentarians’ Network on Population and Development (RPRPD), a group of MPs dedicated to raising public awareness on issues related to population growth. When asked what steps have been taken to ensure that female sex workers are protected, he said that the group only advocated for them to higher authorities. “We talk to people who are in better positions to help them,” the senator said.

Some sex workers say they are willing to abandon the practice and embrace decent lifestyle.

“I am in charge of nine other girls. We desperately want to leave the trade because no one wants to trade their flesh.” Mukyabakazi narrates with moist eyes. “But how will we when we have no other means of fending for ourselves and those we care about?”

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