Vanessa Ishimwe is a composed young girl; however, behind her poise is a sad story.
Her mother was a sex worker, and Ishimwe found out about it when she was 12 years old.
With tears in her eyes, she recalls the pain of finding out what her mother did for a living; though she didn’t understand it, she didn’t judge her.
“Knowing that my mother was a sex worker made me feel so bad. But I understood her when she explained it to me, and I was not mad at her. She had to take care of me and my two siblings,” she says.
Her mother quit sex work a few years ago after she joined Hagari Rwanda, an organisation that helps women in sex work, and their children too, and Ishimwe says she was so proud of her for doing that.
“I am so happy she stopped doing that. I want to work hard so that I compensate her for all that she had to go through, because she was doing that for us,” she says.
Ishimwe, now in primary four, is one of the brightest students in her class. She has hopes and dreams, and refuses to let the past dictate the future.
“I want to be a journalist and I want to work hard such that I take care of my mother,” she says.
Whether it is seen as an exploitative industry preying on the poor and vulnerable, there is a victim that is often overlooked in the sex work industry: the children. Minimal research can be found on the children of prostitutes, yet they are trapped in an industry affecting their health, their lives, and their futures.
Like Ishimwe, 11-year-old Ivan Iradukunda was also born out of sex work. He grew up without a father and became aware of his mother’s line of work as time went by.
Growing up, he recalls sitting by the door almost every evening waiting for his mother, wondering why she was gone most of the time.
“I didn’t know what she was doing because I was still young, but when I got older, she told me. I wasn’t ashamed of her, I took it as it was,” he says.
His mother also left the trade after getting in contact with Hagari Rwanda. She works as a house help and does weaving too.
Iradukunda says he understands why his mother did what she did, but he believes the best is yet to come. He dreams of becoming a mechanical engineer.
Ishimwe and Iradukunda are some of the beneficiaries whose lives were transformed by Hagari Rwanda.
Redemption and empowerment
Hagari seeks to restore the lives of former sex workers, and terminate the cycle within the family.
Many of these women are not financially able to look after their children, and so sometimes, the children find themselves following in the footsteps of their mothers.
In order to break the cycle, the organisation offers a sponsorship programme called The Freedom Fund, which educates these children. Part of the fund also goes to health insurance which covers the entire family.
Fred Otieno Onoka, co-founder of Hagari Rwanda, says that sad as it is, the reality is that many of the children find out about sex as early as three because of this line of work.
He, however, says that through the programme, the children now have access to education and a better life, and are disabling the past.
“The children are doing much better; even the ones who remember what their mothers used to do are taken up by seeing them acquire skills in weaving and tailoring which boost their income,” he says.
The children also have an after-school programme that focuses on building confidence. They have a tutoring programme and weekly feeding programme as well. They also engage in co-curricular activities, like playing tennis and learning ballet.
There are 65 families and 90 children under the programme.
Onoka says most of the women ended up as sex workers, not by choice, but because of the poor living conditions they were in.
“Some were school drop outs, others were victims of the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi who lost their relatives at a very young age; most of them were easily swept into the industry because of the harsh living conditions.”
But with the programme, the women are empowered with income-boosting skills.
Former sex workers share their story
22-year-old Yvette Muhorakeye dropped out of school and a few months later, she got pregnant. She decided to run away from home out of fear, and sought small jobs as means of survival.
“The man responsible for the pregnancy disappeared and I didn’t know where to start. But I had to survive, and so I started sex work, while I was pregnant,” she says.
Muhorakeye eventually had the baby, and continued with sex work to make ends meet.
With the little money she earned, she paid rent and bought food, and life moved on.
In 2013, a member of Hagari Rwanda approached her and asked her to join the organisation, and that’s how she left the streets.
“They advised me to quit what I was doing; they trained me in weaving and now I make jewellery for a living,” she says.
Muhorakeye says the condition she was in forced her into sex work. “I was not proud of what I did, in fact, it didn’t give me any peace at all. It was hard being with different people but because I needed the money, I had to persevere. But life is better now, I have a decent job,” she says.
Devine Pendo is 30 years old and a single mother. She recalls living a hard life after losing her parents. She had nowhere to turn and sought support in sex work. Things, however, only got worse. She got pregnant.
“I had to take care of my child, but because I didn’t have anyone to leave with her, I would lock her in the house to go and look for money,” Pendo says.
She got arrested a couple of times, and sometimes, neighbours would come to the baby’s rescue.
The situation, she says, affected her so much that it turned her into an emotionless person who didn’t care about anything or anyone.
“I didn’t feel like a human being. I didn’t have a heart, and I felt like God didn’t exist because of what I was going through. But when I met with Hagari in 2010, it changed my life,” she says.
She now earns a living through weaving. And, she says, she is also a much better person.
“I get along well with people, something I didn’t do back then because I was ashamed of myself. I guess I was trying to protect my identity. I really thank God.”