24 October 2012

Rwanda: Legalising Prostitution - MPs Need to Stop Changing Their Positions

Photo: A. Mirza/Irin
A sex worker (file photo).


"Indaya". That's probably the worst thing that you can call a Rwandan woman of any age. "Prostitute". To label someone thus is to rub their reputation in the mud, all the while questioning their moral fibre. In short, when one becomes 'indaya' you lose your place at the table of proud, Rwandan womanhood.

I realized just how deeply affected these women (I've not heard of or seen any male prostitutes) were by our society's upturned noses a few months ago. Around four in the morning, I heard a taxi moto rider drop a passenger close to my home. The price that passenger wanted to pay was nowhere near what the rider thought was fair. The haggling turned bad tempered in a few minutes with the obviously female passenger refusing to pay a hundred francs extra, no matter the amount of pleading and sweet-talking the rider engaged in. Exasperated, the rider asked her in Kinyarwanda, "agaciro kawe karihe" (where is your dignity)?

Obviously thinking that the 'A' word would appeal to her sense of fair play. He obviously didn't expect what came next, and truth be told, neither did I. Slamming her gate behind her, she parted with a shocking revelation, at least to me. "Nagira agaciro kandi ndi indaya" (can I have dignity when I'm a prostitute)?

Now, we don't often ask ourselves just how our social blackballing affects people, but at that moment, I almost understood the woman's pain. She felt so low that, in effect, she did not feel a shred of dignity. And honestly, ANYTHING that undermines someone's dignity to that extent is a blot on our collective conscience. Thus, this week's column.

On Friday, members of the Rwanda Parliamentarians' Network on Population and Development (RPRPD) released a report calling for the protection of sex workers from assault and any kind of mischief. What got my goat was the fact that the law punishing prostitution was passed by these very parliamentarians. How can they be protected when they are deemed 'criminal'?

The recently passed Penal Code still criminalizes the act of prostitution, punishing both the prostitutes and the johns with jail sentences ranging from three months to six years (depending on whether they're repeat offender) and/or subjected to surveillance measures.

While articles 204-214 are not as draconian as some around the world (in fact, I find its treatment of prostitutes quite lenient when compared to the former penal law), at the end of the day, the men and women engaging in it are still labeled 'common criminals'. Actually, thieves and wife-beaters are looked upon more gently by the general public than prostitutes, despite the fact that their line of work hurts no one other than themselves. If they finish their jail time, thieves don't suffer the kind of social exclusion that released prostitutes face.

Plus, despite the softy-softy approach that lawmakers took, the police STILL hounds them (despite the fact that they obviously have, or should have, better things to do), forcing them underground (something that probably made work of the sex worker serial killer a lot easier) and rendering their employment untaxable. They still face stigma, discrimination against their children and non-payment for services rendered.

What hurts me the most is not the missed tax opportunities or their arrest but rather the indignity that they are made to feel. It is hard enough to do that job (which in reality is all it is) without being branded 'criminals' by lawmakers. We have 'real' criminals in this country.

These 15,792 women (and men) who are involved in the sex trade (according to RPRPD statistics) deserve their 'agaciro' back. Let them be allowed to do the work they do in peace. Striking consensual prostitution off the statute books is not only smart, but humane as well. MPs need to be brave here. They cannot criminalise something and then hope that the punitive measures in the law aren't applied by the justice system. Because they will. And they have.

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