Besides being a disgraceful, shameful and belittling trade, they only saw an option to survive in plying the so called oldest profession, mainly because most of them were uneducated.
This is a tale of 95 former commercial sex workers who decided to quit the dishonourable trade of selling their bodies in exchange for petty cash.
They are now the pride of Gikondo suburb in Kicukiro District in a village commonly known as ‘Sodoma’. The group of women is now organised in a group called ‘Rwiyemezamirimo Dufatanye Cooperative’.
They have also set up their own market in the area where they sell charcoal, tomatoes, fruits and other groceries. They quit the trade and earn their living through their own sweat and hard work.
Jane Kamunaze 33, plied the ‘evil business’ as she calls it now, for over 13 years.
Kamunaze, who was a Gikondo-based sex worker, today can’t imagine how she managed to cope with such a kind of life for all those years.
“I thought sex trade was the only way I would make a living here in Kigali, being uneducated. I could not fathom any alternative trade other than selling my body.
It wasn’t a good life at all as we were always being chased by police, abused by people, cheated by patrons and I did not at any time enjoy the trade, I only did it for survival.
After all those years, I was really getting tired of having to go almost naked every evening and selling myself to anyone for as little as Rwf 1,000.
I always dreaded having children because of lack of a plausible story I would tell them if they asked what my occupation was, and one day I decided to look for options, if ever I was to have a family of my own.
I discussed with my colleagues, who were also in the same trade as me, and agreed that we could get a loan and open a decent business.
We then went to Gikondo Catholic parish where we they gave us a loan of Rwf100,000 that we were supposed to use as our startup capital.
At first we had an association of four women and each of us was given a loan of Rwf20, 000 by the parish. We then started doing business and selling groceries and fruits but we needed to inject more money in our business to be able to get dependable returns.
We then went to the Gikondo Sector offices to ask for support. The sector gave us a piece of land where we have since established our market. We don’t pay rent for the market.
When we had just started, the residents had a negative attitude towards us and were always abusing us and did not want us there because of our history. But we stayed on, and proved them wrong, that we were actually there for a good cause and gradually, they started accepting us, and they are now our customers.
Now, I wake up every morning, work in the green house where we grow tomatoes then go to the market to sell. I can now buy my own clothes and look after my child. I don’t have to wait for any man to support me.
As a cooperative, we also have access to loans in banks and always share ideas to improve our businesses.
We want to see more sex workers quit the filthy business so we always to talk to them to change and many of them are willing if they find something else to do.”
Diane Umwiza 35, the vice president of Rwiyemezamirimo cooperative, said the last few months haven’t been so good for their tomato business because of water shortage and the dry spell.
However, they managed to get a profit of over Rwf400,000 from selling tomatoes for two months which weren’t even good.
“We wish we could get more clients like restaurants and hotels for our tomatoes. Right now we have a client who takes 100 kilogrammes every week and the restaurants around here also buy from us. We hope to get more clients, make more money and have more women quit sex work to join legal business that they are proud of,” she said.
Umwiza added that from the proceeds of their sales, they have bought furniture for their members, furniture that includes items like sofa sets and television screens among other home appliances.
According to Umwiza, their biggest challenge is the ever increasing rent for the houses in which they stay.
“We wish we could have our own Umudugudu (communal settlement) where we could stay and do our business without worrying about rent charges. We hope our leaders could find us a place, even if it’s outside town where we can stay and work hard as well while helping other women to quit commercial sex,” she said.
Cecile Mujawayezu, the president of the cooperative, said that another challenge is that they always have water shortages which affects their tomatoes as they go bad in a short time.