Activists say sex workers aren’t criminals

KIGALI — Sex worker advocates are vehemently opposing a new bill they say hinders the fight against HIV/AIDS in Rwanda.

The new penal code contains a section that criminalizes prostitution.

Experts say this policy will be harmful to sex workers and act against Rwanda’s development goal of reducing HIV/AIDS.

Aflodis Kagaba is the executive director of the Health Development Initiative, one of ten civil society groups that signed a petition against the bill.

“We think it may have negative consequences for the health of sex workers,” Kagaba said. “We think criminalization will drive them underground.”

He said if sex workers are afraid of being arrested, they’ll be less likely to seek medical treatment, employment support, or legal protection.

“When they are criminalized, it makes them more vulnerable. More vulnerable to HIV, but also more vulnerable to gender-based violence,” he said. “If sex work wasn’t criminalized, that would empower them to fight for their rights, to say so-and-so has abused me.”

According to the Ministry of Health, the rate of HIV/AIDS for sex workers is 51 per cent, almost 20 times higher than the national average.

The government itself, in its National Strategic Plan on HIV/AIDS, identifies specific vulnerabilities that sex workers face, including difficulties in accessing services due to discrimination, and violence.

The Plan includes provisions to analyze and reduce the vulnerability of sex workers, increase medical services for them, and conduct educational outreach programs.

Kagaba said sex workers suffer from stigmatization against them, and emphasized that most turn to prostitution out of desperation.

“Some of them are very poor. They’ve had unwanted pregnancies while doing domestic work or at the early stages of school, and they end up becoming prostitutes.”

This reporter had the opportunity to interview a group of sex workers at the offices of The Association of Solidarity between Rwandan Women (ASOFERWA).

The women all said they didn’t want to resort to selling their bodies, but were forced to for economic reasons. They said they need support services such as those offered by ASOFERWA.

“Prostitution isn’t our choice. It’s just a way to earn a living,” said Farida, one of the sex workers. “They shouldn’t punish us for it.”

Instead, she said the government should support organizations like ASOFERWA to educate sex workers about safe sex, treatment of sexually transmitted infections, and how to find a safer job.

Solange, another sex worker, said their children deserve the same opportunities as other kids, and the government should help by doing things like paying for their school fees.

Kagaba stresses the importance of the support given by civil society to help educate sex workers about their rights, sexual health, and safer job choices.

“There was some great work that was done before this criminalization came into force. Some organizations were reaching out to them, educating them, [and] giving them alternative incomes.”

However, Kagaba said activists may now hesitate before working with sex workers because under the new law, encouraging sex work is illegal.

“When people become criminal by the fact of their identity, it becomes very difficult for you to work with them.”

Jean Paul Balinda works for FHI 360, an organization that helps to fight against HIV/AIDS.

He said sex workers, who are mostly self-employed, can be as young as seven years old, and charge as little as Rwf500 for their services. They often suffer from violence from clients who refuse to pay.

Balinda said most clients are married men, so the risk of HIV transmission is very high.

He said the government should look at prostitution as a public health issue since sex workers are “at the core of HIV transmission.”

He questions the logic of the new policy.

“If they implement this law, how will the government provide health services to sex workers?”

Balinda and Kagaba both argue that criminalizing prostitution won’t eliminate it. Instead this policy will simply drive prostitutes underground.

“Even when you criminalize it, sex workers will still be there,” Kagaba said. “It will still continue, but underground.”

He acknowledged that there are many challenges faced by sex workers, but said this law is a step in the wrong direction.

“I don’t think that this is an easy issue to solve, but I think that decriminalizing would be the best solution.”

Aimable Mwananawe is the National Coordinator of AIMR Ihorere Munyarwanda, one of the groups that signed the petition against criminalizing prostitution.

He remains confident about the campaign to change the law.

“We shall continue to advocate for the amendment of that provision,” he said. “The law is not static.”

This article was written on July 13, 2012.

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