Rwanda debates legalising the world's oldest profession

RNW archive

This article is part of the RNW archive. RNW is the former Radio Netherlands Worldwide or Wereldomroep, which was founded as the Dutch international public broadcaster in 1947. In 2011, the Dutch government decided to cut funding and shift RNW from the ministry of Education, Culture and Science to the ministry of Foreign Affairs. More information about RNW Media’s current activities can be found at

The series of prostitute murders that occurred this past 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 legalisation of prostitution. However, some young people, not to mention the sex workers themselves, are promoting more pragmatic solutions for safety in the industry.

By Clive Muhenga, Kigali

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. Some of the suspects confessed to having acted in revenge against prostitutes who allegedly infected them with the HIV virus.

The turmoil compelled Rwandan MPs to conduct a survey on prostitution, and the results were presented earlier this month in the plenary session of the assembly and senate. At the end of the debate earlier this month, the MPs recommended that the government categorise sex workers as profit-generating cooperatives. But no deputy dared call for their legalisation. On the contrary, they all called for strict implementation of the law. Prostitution remains a crime in Rwanda, punishable by up to seven years of imprisonment.

“Western ideas”
A majority of Rwandans do not seem to object to this. “Legalise prostitution? In other words, tell women that they have the right to sell their bodies," Chantal Uwamariya. The young teacher, who wishes to enter the Carmelite Sisters, finds the idea appalling to the core. "Those are Western ideas. Rwanda has been through all kinds of evil; I hope we don’t go that far.” 

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 recognised as a profession just like construction or farming!”

"It is a profession"
Although for most Rwandans, the legalisation of sex work goes against common sense and established moral values, it does have some supporters among young people.

“I think we should stop fooling ourselves. Prostitution is a real phenomenon that is growing every day. It has disastrous consequences such as sexually transmitted diseases, HIV/AIDS and so on. Prostitution should be legalised to minimise 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 condoms.

"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 reasons people sell their bodies.

“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 others can't. There are some who have gone too far to turn back. We know that this profession is legal in other countries, so 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.”