Rwanda's civil society has welcomed a move to remove prostitution from the list of criminal offences, arguing that legalising it would help overcome cultural stigma and denial of medical treatment.
In the draft penal code that was endorsed by Cabinet and due for debate by parliament, prostitution is not listed as a criminal offence.
“Once prostitution is made legal, more people will start coming out to seek medical treatment. This is especially a positive step towards the fights against HIV/Aids because over 40 per cent of the prostitutes in Rwanda have the virus,” said Afrodis Kagaba, the executive director of Health Integrated Development.
The only reference to prostitution in the draft penal code is forced prostitution, which falls under crimes against humanity and attracts a penalty of up to 25 years in prison.
However, until these changes are passed into law, prostitution remains illegal.
Currently, any person caught engaging in prostitution faces restrictions from certain areas for up to a year. If the person continues prostituting, they face a jail term of between six months to two years and a fine of up to Rwf500,000 ($585).
Kigali’s nightlife attracts many prostitutes, who try to hide from the police.
Non governmental organisations that work with prostitutes say that many of them shy away from getting medical treatment because of the stigma they face, yet they are the largest single group affected by HIV in the country.
Another challenge is that many of them face abuse, which they cannot report to the police for fear of being arrested.
“Legalising prostitution will help them to overcome the challenges they face. They are judged by society without understanding the causes that force them into this practice. They also face stigma at the hospitals or when they seek for social benefits,” said James Butare, head of Programmes and Policy at ActionAid International Rwanda.
“The government should support them, but is sometimes silent because of the culture that looks down on prostitutes. Stigmatising them doesn’t help in overcoming the challenges that forced them into prostitution,” added Mr Butare.
Social experts are now calling on the civil society to ensure that more programmes are available to help those who get into prostitution.
“Such programmes should help ensure their health and physical safety and help them deal with their finances,” said Joseph Nkurunziza, the executive director at Never Again Rwanda.
A survey by the Ministry of Health found that 43 per cent of HIV cases are transmitted through sex with a prostitute.