Rwanda declared skin-whitening illegal yet black market selling remains
Shopkeeper, 27, says she can’t keep up with her seven-year skin-lightening regimen since the products are now too expensive.
After a statewide prohibition on dangerous ingredients like hydroquinone (beyond certain levels) or mercury was implemented by the Rwandan government in 2018, it became unlawful to manufacture or sell most skin lightening cosmetics.
Because of this, Sierra is scrambling to locate a new vendor. According to CNN, smugglers “refuse to sell them to just anyone” as a result of the severe fines they face if they are discovered. Trade in them can land you in prison for up to two years and a fine of up to $5000 in Rwandan francs. To date, a large number of drug traffickers have been taken into custody.
According to Sierra, the only way to obtain skin-lightening lotions is if you’re one of the few people who have won the trust of a smuggler.
Rwandan Standards Board public relations official Simeon Kwizera said the decision to ban these items was made after numerous reports of the damage done to the skin of consumers by applying these cosmetics, CNN reports.
Toxic if used incorrectly or for an extended period of time, items containing mercury, steroid, or hydroquinone can still be found on the market, despite the ban. However, there is still a market for these products, albeit one that is considerably smaller and much more hidden.
It’s taken Olive (a pseudonym) 45 years to get her hands on a steady supply of skin-lightening creams. Olive:
She told CNN she visits a Musanze cosmetics shop once a month because the town serves as a starting point for treks in search of Rwanda’s fabled mountain gorillas.
A few code words are all Olive needs to describe her purpose for visiting the store once she is inside. She is subsequently presented with an envelope containing a container of cream.
Because of the prohibition, the mother of two who works as a tailor has had to up her beauty regimen’s price tag and be more flexible about what she can do to lighten her skin.
Prior to the prohibition, she could buy her favorite skin-brightening cream for 2,000 Rwf (about $2), but that is no longer an option. The new brand she’s switching to costs twice as much.
At least it is attainable, Olive says, before confessing that her erratic income has sometimes caused her to put her skin regimen on hold. The average monthly wage for a Rwandan woman is $41.83 (42,796 Rwf).
In 2016, a ministerial decision barred the use of 1342 hazardous chemicals and compounds in cosmetics, including hydroquinone above specific percentages, mercury, and steroids. The small, landlocked country has a population of roughly 13 million people. Skin lightening products often contain these three substances.
However, it wasn’t until 2018 that authorities started taking action against those who flouted the rule.
Ministerial orders from 2016 were only fully implemented in 2018, according to Rwandan government spokesman Yolande Makolo, according to CNN. There was a need to establish capacity in several areas so that the prohibition could be enforced, she explains.
The Rwanda Standards Board (RSB), an official regulator for cosmetics and pharmaceuticals, constructed laboratories to test for dangerous substances during this period. New legislation was enacted, including a penal code and establishing the Rwanda Food and Drug Authority. Skin bleaching is “very unhealthy among other things,” says Rwandan President Paul Kagame on Twitter, adding that it “includes usage of forbidden chemicals.” In November 2018, Paul Kagame openly supported the project. According to the president, “this needs to be reined in very rapidly…!” by the Ministry of Health and the Rwanda National Police (RNP).
At the end of that year, raids on stores and public marketplaces all around the country began.
At least 13,596 skin-lightening items were seized by the police from RNP officials in just 2020 alone, according to RNP spokesperson ACP Jean Bosco Kabera, who spoke with CNN about the incident. In the next year, this number rose to 39,204.
To combat the unlawful trade in skin lightening goods, Rwandan law enforcement has depended on citizens to tip them off to their neighbors. In addition to raids, efforts have been made to educate importers and local manufacturers on the chemical features of forbidden items as a preventative measure.
According to public relations officer Kwizera, the RSB has “educated cosmetic importers, local producers, and all value chains about the new policies and how to check content in these products” for illicit ingredients or prohibited quantities of particular ingredients, and the training is ongoing. The RSB then evaluates and certifies the products that participants import or produce locally.
There have so far been 19 companies in Rwanda that have received the RSB’s S-Mark, which serves to reassure consumers that safety and quality standards have been met. Makolo explains that certifying safe Rwanda-made cosmetics can help businesses reduce losses from importing or producing items that breach the ban.
In addition, the government sponsored awareness efforts in the community and on media and social media to educate people about the dangers of whitening and the ban itself.