Abstract – Developing human rights-based strategies to improve health among female sex workers in Rwanda

Agnes Binagwaho, Mawuena Agbonyitor, Aimable Mwananawe, Placidie Mugwaneza, Alexander Irwin, and Corine Karema

Health and Human Rights 12/2

Published December 2010


How governments should address sex work is a topic of current debate in Rwanda and other countries. Some constituencies propose harsher punishment of sex workers as the cornerstone of an improved policy. We argue that an adequate policy response to sex work in the Rwandan context must prioritize public health and reflect current knowledge of the social determinants of health. This does not imply intensified repression, but a comprehensive agenda of medical and social support to improve sex workers’ access to health care, reduce their social isolation, and expand their economic options. Evidence from social epidemiology converges with rights-based arguments in this approach. Recent field interviews with current and former sex workers strengthen the case, while highlighting the need for further social scientific and epidemiological analysis of sex work in Rwanda. Rwanda has implemented some measures that reflect a rights-based perspective in addressing sex work. For example, recent policies seek to expand access to education for girls and support sex workers in the transition to alternative livelihoods. These policies reinforce the model of solidarity-based public health action for which Rwanda has been recognized. Whether such measures can maintain traction in the face of economic austerity and ideological resistance remains to be seen.