Cablegate: Civil Society Advocates Against Criminalizing Sex

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1. (SBU) SUMMARY: A coalition of civil society
representatives met January 5 to discuss an article in the
draft penal code criminalizing sex workers. The lower house
adopted the penal code in December and will send it to the
Senate after translating it into French and English. The
article carries a penalty of imprisonment and/or a fine to
both the sex worker and the client. The coalition is
concerned over possible negative health and human rights
impacts the law might have on sex workers. END SUMMARY.

2. (SBU) A coalition of Rwandan NGOs working on issues such
as health, media, youth, literacy, and women met January 5 to
discuss urging senators to remove an article in the draft
penal code that would criminalize sex workers. (Note: In late
2009, these same groups lobbied the lower chamber of
parliament to remove two articles from the draft penal
code--one criminalizing homosexuality and the other
criminalizing sex work. In December, the lower chamber
removed the former but passed the latter, and will send the
draft to the senate once it is translated into French and
English. End Note.)The proposed legislation carries a penalty
of six months to three years in prison and/or a fine of
50,000 to 500,000 Rwandan francs (approximately $100-$1,000).
Each judge would also have the option to put the accused on
probation for a period of up to one year with stipulations
that can include: restrictions on travel, investigations,
medical care/hospitalization, and/or mandatory meetings with
authorities. These punishments apply to both the sex worker
and the client. According to some participants who observed
debates on the penal code in the lower chamber,
parliamentarians expressed concerns that the law may only
punish poor sex workers who are visible on the roadside, it
could be difficult to enforce, and producing evidence of sex
work could be impossible. After the debates, they passed the

3. (SBU) The Rwandan NGO coalition believes that it was, in
part, their efforts that led to the removal of the
homosexuality legislation. They also acknowledged that the
Minister of Justice's recognition of the various
international conventions to which Rwanda is a signatory and
the Rwandan constitution, which guarantees citizens are equal
before the law without discrimination, played an important
role. Sex work is a very different issue; some
parliamentarians argue that even in countries with
exceptional human rights records, sex work is a crime.
Together the coalition agreed on several points regarding the
legislation. First and foremost, they are concerned that
criminalizing sex work will push this already vulnerable
group further into hiding, making it more difficult to reach
them with health services, especially for HIV/AIDS. (Note:
According to some NGOs, sex workers in Rwanda are already a
very difficult group to reach. End Note.) From the human
rights aspect, they argued that this law could expose sex
workers to increased harassment and abuse and will leave them
no legal recourse. Another aspect is gender. The majority of
sex workers are female and the coalition thinks that with the
Rwandan government's commitment to gender equality, plus the
fact that a third of Rwanda's senators are women, it can make
a strong case against imprisoning vulnerable women instead of
finding them alternative sources of income. And finally, the
coalition noted that imprisoning a sex worker for three years
Qcoalition noted that imprisoning a sex worker for three years
will not address the root cause--poverty. Like with the
homosexuality article, the group mentioned several
commitments Rwanda has made, such as ensuring universal
access to HIV services, that it can use when lobbying

4. (SBU) The coalition chose a small committee to draft a
position paper, to be shared among the group for comments.
Once finalized, the paper can be used in lobbying efforts
with individual members of the senate, Ministry of Health
officials, and the National AIDS Commission, which includes
sex workers as a target group for HIV services in its
national strategic plan. The coalition is considering holding
a workshop for civil society, international NGOs, senators,
parliamentarians, and other government officials to discuss
the importance of access to health and HIV services for all
groups in Rwanda. Some local and international NGOs in Rwanda
provide services to sex workers, and it is unknown how this
law could impact their work.

5. (SBU) COMMENT: Although sex work is not as sensitive an
issue in Rwanda as homosexuality, it is noteworthy that the
coalition--a loosely organized, unregistered group--is again
preparing to lobby parliament. The fact that the group,
despite its unregistered status, felt confident enough to

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hold a press conference publicizing the draft article
criminalizing homosexuality may indicate that it has some
political backing. That said, it does not appear that civil
society efforts influenced significantly parliamentarians'
decision to remove the homosexuality legislation; rather,
lobbying and statements by key government figures were
decisive. Rwandan civil society is weak and neither its
members nor the government fully understands its role. These
recent efforts may be an indicator of increasing strength and
organization. After the meeting, one participant mentioned
that he would like to see this group become more formal and
be available to advocate on any important issues that arise.

© Scoop Media

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