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‘Always on the Run’: Rwanda’s Street Sellers Targeted for Harassment

Many of Rwanda’s illegal street vendors are women, many of whom are struggling to raise children alone. Now they’re in the crosshairs of a state crackdown, facing endemic sexual harassment.

Written by Rodrigue Rwirahira Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
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Women sell vegetables on the streets of Nyabugogo in Kigali City. Many mothers have to bring their children along when they go to work, despite the risks. Cyril Ndegeya

KIGALI, Rwanda – Every day, Clementine Mukandera sets up her stall on a street in Kigali in the hopes of selling enough fruit to put food on her family’s table that night. But most days, the mother of three ends up having to quickly pack up her produce and run from the police, with her infant son strapped to her back.

“That is how it goes on a daily basis, we are always on the run,” Mukandera says. “We have got used to it and we have come to be familiar with our pursuers, even when they are in plain clothes.”

Kigali has long been wrestling with the issue of illegal street vendors, many of whom are women and single mothers, and who number as many as 8,000. But as the police and the inkeragutabara – war veterans who now serve as local law enforcers – crack down on the city’s informal economy, vendors are struggling to support their families.

Selling on the street is publishable by a fine of 10,000 Rwandan francs ($13), and people who buy from street sellers face the same penalty. But women vendors say they are also being forced to exchange sex for the right to continue earning a living.

“Some women agree with the inkeragutabara to have sex to be allowed to hawk around,” Mukandera says. “We understand many have delivered the children of their pursuers.”

Several women who spoke to News Deeply said they are regularly sexually harassed by members of the community police. Mukandera says she was once propositioned after she was caught in a raid.

“As we were heading to the patrol car, the [inkeragutabara] escorting me made sexual gestures. I told him I would rather go to prison than have sex with him, which is what happened because I was detained for three days.”

When asked about the sexual harassment allegations, a representative for the City Council confirmed that authorities were aware of the problem, but said there was little they could do due to a lack of women reporting the harassment when it happens. In September, the council deployed regular police to work alongside the inkeragutabara in cracking down on street sellers.

“The problem we have been having is the failure of the victims to report to us, so that we can take appropriate measures right away,” says Bruno Rangira, City Council communications director. “Our decision to have the police force deal directly with hawking was partially to make sure the people we have on [the] ground are more professional.”

Police have been deployed to patrol the streets of Kigali, to crack down on street selling and to supervise community officers, who are reported to have harassed women vendors. (Cyril Ndegeya)

Rangira says the city is also working to get illegal vendors off the streets by helping them form cooperatives to launch small businesses legally. He says they have managed to get more than 7,000 vendors out of informal trading in the past five years. In 2016, the government built 12 official markets, designed to house up to 8,000 vendors.

“We give them workspaces for which they don’t pay rent for the first year, they don’t pay taxes for that same year and on top of that we give them free training and help them access finance,” he says. “But some still decline and return to the streets.”

Gender-Based Corruption

As street vendors continue to fall victim to sexual harassment, there are reports showing that the demand for sex in exchange for work or other services may be on the rise in other sectors. A recent corruption perception survey released by Transparency International Rwanda found that 5 percent of respondents had been asked for sex in exchange for favors and services.

Researchers spoke to students whose professors demanded sex for good grades, housemaids who were harassed in exchange for job placements and employees propositioned for salary increases.

To combat the destructive phenomenon, Transparency International along with Rwanda’s Office of the Ombudsman and all security agencies are campaigning for consistent training to sensitize members of the public toward gender-based corruption, and to report cases as they happen.

Female street vendors in the Nyabugogo area. Street vending is not allowed in Rwanda. (Cyril Ndegeya)

Meanwhile, every day remains a challenge for women sellers like Mukandera, who are at risk not just from generalized gender corruption, but the specific vulnerability that comes with participating in the informal economy – visible to all on the streets of Kigali.

“We will always take to the streets and dare to take these risks,” Mukandera says. “We have no way out. Promises from the government are not working for us.”

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