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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. 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.
Sex work is found in every country and culture and has been observed since the beginning of civilization. Commercial sex work currently ranges from small-scale self employment, practiced for survival, to multi-million-dollar international sex industries involving managers and power-holding intermediaries between sex workers and clients.
Discussions of sex work and human rights often center on the issue of trafficking. As such, both source and destination countries involved in trafficking neglect their duty to protect women, as formulated in CEDAW Article 6, which expressly mandates that States must fight against the trafficking of women.