It is almost three on a Saturday morning; the cold air stings, the bars lined up opposite Amahoro Stadium are closing up, most patrons have left and Clare*, a sex worker, is calling it a night. It’s been a long and rude night for Clare because she has not had a single client. “Business today is slow, the end of month is near and men are broke. Besides, there are too many of us around but it will pick up at the end month,” she says.
The 23-year-old (about 5’2), wears a weave that is held back with a rubber band, her face heavy with makeup. She is in a black sparkly dress that is halfway between her knees and waist, exposing her thighs. She has a fragile unearthly cuteness.
“I came to Kigali to look for a job. I first worked as a house girl. I was paid peanuts, the work was tiresome and the boss mistreated me. After that I tried selling airtime before I met a former classmate who showed me around,” she says.
She lives in Kimironko in a one roomed house. “I can’t go home dressed so skimpily. If my neighbours or land lady knew what I do for a living, they would throw me out. They think I work the nightshift as a bartender. Back at home, I told them I work as a shop attendant,” she says letting out a cloud of cigarette smoke.
“I was once kicked out of a house by the landlady because of pressure from fellow tenants,” says Clare’s friend Eva*.
Eva and Clare are not at “strategic” points on the street; they lurk in an almost isolated corner. The best positions have been claimed by veterans and others who have been on the street longer. It is almost like a hierarchy; everyone knows their place. Isolated and lesser populated areas are for new entrants, mostly the young and naïve. With time they move up to well lit areas with more potential clients.
“On a good night you can make between Rwf 5000 to 7000. Some nights it’s Rwf 2000 and others like today, nothing,” Eva explains.
Eva says she even has a guy hitting on her. “There is a guy hitting on me. He looks quite serious and thinks I’m a bartender. It’s a good thing he doesn’t drink. It’s been going on for a few months now, I think at some point I will have to lie to him that I lost my job and get serious with him.” She doesn’t find it strange at all since most of her colleagues have children and boyfriends.
When asked if she doesn’t feel guilty or ashamed about what she does, she gives a dirty look that says ‘mind your business like I am minding mine’. But after prodding her further, she opens up, “Of course, there is nothing to be proud of. I have tried to quit many times but after a day or two of miserable job searching, I end up here. To get away from reality, I get wasted, sometimes on weed (marijuana) or liquor.”
Pauline Wanjiku, a counselor, explains that the resolution to quit is not always enough. “They need something else to hold on to. They need therapy to regain their self esteem back, value themselves and see themselves as more than just objects of quick pleasure. They need some hand holding.”
“What they really need isn’t sex or men; they need skills that they can put to use like tailoring or hair dressing. It is not fishing but rather learning how to fish,” a nun who requested for anonymity added.
You don’t have to do this:
Clare says that once in a while they have people who come to talk them out of doing what they do. “There was a priest who used to come around to talk to us. He would give us leaflets and pray for us but I have not seen him in like six months. There are others who come often and distribute condoms and beg us to get our HIV status checked. They also ask us to quit and try to give us better options.”
Does she know her HIV status? “What you don’t know doesn’t harm you,” Eva interjects.
AIMR to the rescue:
AIMR-Ihorere Munyarwnda is one of the organisations that reaches out to girls like Eva and Clare. “We have volunteers and peer educators who make initial contact. At times we use former sex workers since they can relate to them,” says Aimable Mwananawe, the National Coordinator of the organisation. “We offer them vocational training on courses like hair dressing, beauty therapy, dress making and agriculture. We try to improve their welfare economically and socially through income generating activities. Some get loans from SACCOs and their stories change. We try to reintegrate them back to the community. So far we have had like 700.”
According to Aimable, integrating them back to the community and ending the stigma can be a little difficult though they try. “I cannot tolerate a prostitute in any of my houses, I don’t care if she was or still is. I would rather have them vacant. I do not want any business with them,” Appolinare, a landlord in Kisimenti stresses.
“For those who are not willing to leave the trade, we distribute condoms and sensitise them on STD’s and HIV/AIDS. We provide testing, counseling and ensure they are on the right track,” says Aimable.
Do they read the priest’s leaflets? We will never know. Like most of the ladies of the night, Eva says she is still weighing offers from organisations like AIMR to quit and get decent skills. “I have been thinking of it. I still am but for now I will have to keep lying to my landlord, family, neighbours, friends and take the free condoms,” she concludes, crushing the cigarette stub with her heel.