Rwanda Debates Anew On Legalizing World's Oldest Job - Sex

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

The series of prostitute murders that occurred this summer in Rwanda's capital has revived debate on the world's oldest profession. On the whole, the country's very modest population opposes the legalization of prostitution. However, some young people, not to mention the workers themselves, are promoting more pragmatic solutions for safety in the sex industry.

This past July in a populous Kigali neighbourhood, the lifeless bodies of over a dozen sex workers were found strangled or stabbed. The police subsequently made arrests, with some suspects said to have confessed to acting in revenge against prostitutes who allegedly infected them with the HIV virus.

The turmoil compelled Rwandan MPs to conduct a survey on prostitution, and its results were presented earlier this month in the plenary session of the assembly and senate.

At the end of the debate on 19 October, the MPs recommended as a solution that the government group sex workers under profit-generating cooperatives. But no deputy dared call for their legalization.

On the contrary, they all called for the strict implementation of the law. Prostitution remains a crime in Rwanda, punishable with up to seven years of imprisonment.

"Western ideas"

A majority of Rwandans does not seem to object to this.

"Legalize prostitution? In other words, saying to women: 'You have the right to sell your bodies'? These are Western ideas. Rwanda has been through all kinds of evil; I hope we don't go that far," says Chantal Uwamariya. The young teacher, who wishes to enter the Carmelite Sisters, finds the idea appalling to the core.

A similarly intense aversion is expressed by Emmanuel Musabyimana. The young mechanic says: "Think about what our society would be like if prostitution was officially recognized as a way to earn a living - a profession just like construction or farming!"

"It is a profession"

Although for most Rwandans, the legalization of sex work goes against common sense and established moral values, it does have some supporters among youth.

"I think we should stop fooling ourselves. Prostitution is a real phenomenon that is growing every day with disastrous consequences such as sexually transmitted diseases, HIV/AIDS and so on. Prostitution should be legalized if we want to minimize those risks," says Denis Tandimwebwa, a student in agronomy. "We need to organize this sector because no matter what one says, it is a profession. There are people who depend on it to survive."

According to the Rwandan Health Ministry, 51 percent of sex workers in the country are HIV-positive and only 66 percent of them use the condom.

"What else was I to do?"

One important finding of the survey, according to study participant Senator Célestin Sebuhoro, is that poverty and abuse within families are the main causes for people to take up prostitution.

"I did not choose this job," says Rosine, in a loud bar in Kigali's famous Nyamirambo neighbourhood. "I was forced into it because of poverty. I dropped out of school at the age of fifteen because I was impregnated by a truck driver who then left me. I had to survive and feed my baby, and my parents were very poor. What else was I to do?"

She continues: "Sometimes I have good clients who pay well and use a condom. But there are also others who refuse to pay after the sex and, on top of that, even beat me."

Before finishing up her bottle of beer, Rosine adds: "Some of us can get out, but not others. There are some who have gone too far to turn back. We learn that this profession is legal in other countries, why not here? Only a law would protect us."

"And we can't complain," notes Drocella, another sex worker who winks at a middle-aged man just entering the bar. "An abused prostitute cannot complain here."

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