Sunday, March 22, 2009

Rwanda Clinic: The original story

The original story:

From despair to dignity
In Rwanda, a bustling clinic propels women's recovery from rape, effects of genocide

Sarah Petrescu
Times Colonist

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Friends Maria Bahizi, left, and Miriam Jean work on colourful items for sale at the We-Actx clinic in Kigali. The work initiative is a project of the clinic that helps women dealing with HIV.
CREDIT: Sarah Petrescu, Times Colonist
Friends Maria Bahizi, left, and Miriam Jean work on colourful items for sale at the We-Actx clinic in Kigali. The work initiative is a project of the clinic that helps women dealing with HIV.

Dozens of women chatted while toddlers played and babies cried in the waiting room at the downtown Kigali health clinic run by the U.S.-based Women's Equity to Access for Care and Treatment, or WE-ACTx.

The bustling, cheery atmosphere of the clinic contrasts with the grim reason it exists -- to bring treatment and dignity to women raped and infected with the HIV virus during the country's 1994 genocide.

"We see about 100 patients every day at this clinic," said Joseph Hakizimana, 29, the organization's country clinical co-ordinator and one of its founding employees. With three clinics and two mobile units, they serve almost 5,000, nearly half of those receiving free, life-saving, anti-retroviral medication. "We can still do more, especially in the rural areas where women and men don't even know to get tested."

Hakizimana is passionate about community-driven action in addressing HIV/AIDS in Rwanda. He will be in Victoria this week to speak about the power of grassroots women's organizations in creating access to care and treatment of HIV/AIDS, a pandemic that affects all of Africa.

"Because of a lack of doctors, nurses, infrastructure and the aid organizations who concentrate themselves in cities, many people are not being reached," Hakizimana said.

Hakizimana was a high school student in Butare during the 1994 genocide, in which 800,000 people were killed in 100 days, and 250,000 brutal rapes occurred. The trauma and the aftermath moved him to study nursing at university and to volunteer to work with his mother's organization IMBABAZI, helping AIDS orphans and widows in the rural Cyangugu province, the farthest from Kigali.

"I loved it. That was a huge motivator for me," said Hakizimana.

His ensuing work with genocide-survivor groups led him to become one of WE-ACTx's first employees in 2004.

The organization formed after American journalist Anne-Christine D'Adesky was contacted by a group of Rwandan women who were raped and infected with HIV during the genocide. They were dying while the men who raped them were being treated in jail awaiting trial.

D'Adesky made international news of the injustice but said it was, "a time when words were not enough."

With the help of two friends -- a scientist and a doctor -- and the collaboration of grassroots women's groups and the government in Rwanda, they were able to form the clinic, which has been a hub for research, primary health care and family support since its inception.

Hakizimana said he is in awe of the women he works with. "They led this movement. They are very active," he said. "To be raped or cut by a machete and then find out you are sick from it. To have to explain this to your children who are now old enough to know how HIV is transmitted and want to know why they are positive, this is not easy."

Several of the women who came to WE-ACTx as clients now work there.

Josee Mukamusoni's gleam when she talks about her work in the family programs belies the hell she went through during the genocide.

"My goal is to have all the families I work with get tested and know their status," Mukamusoni, 42, told me in Kinyarwanda through a translator. "I have so much gratitude for this work. I was rock bottom and now that past is fading."

Mukamusoni and her husband, a petroleum product salesman, lived in Butare with their three children before the genocide. He was killed along with most of their relatives.

Mukamusoni broke into tears as she described the night her daughter died.

"I had two of the children on me, one on each hip like this," she gestured. "The military men came and she was shot in my arms."

Mukamusoni is also a victim of rape. She suspected she might have HIV when the man who assaulted her died of AIDS in prison in 1998. The stigma of rape and HIV prevented her from getting tested until 2004, when she came to WE-ACTx and found out she was positive.

"Rape was just a weapon of war for them, to cause a slow, painful death of disgrace. Women were treated like animals, abused in their own houses after the men were killed," said Mukamusoni.

"I feel sad hearing these stories. They remind me of my own. But helping gives me a way to do something and, at least, help pay my rent. Life does go on."

Generating income is another leg of the WE-ACTx project, with an inventive 25-year-old, Frank Mugisha, at its helm.

"Everyone was coming here saying, 'Frank, food, we need food,' because poverty is a real issue and it's hard to treat people who have nothing to eat," said Mugisha, who co-ordinates the income-generating craft co-operative, Ineza. "We needed to do something sustainable, that didn't cost a lot of money."

Mugisha insisted I see the project for myself.

"It's very cool," he said. So we took a taxi across town to a small gated house where a dozen or so women sat side-by-side sewing everything from yoga bags to little brown dolls on antique foot-pedal sewing machines.

"The designs are the best ever," Mugisha beamed, showing off the reversible purses, lap-top bags and aprons he designed with the head seamstress, Sophie Nyiranawumuntu. They looked to western tourists and magazines for inspiration.

"You won't see anything else like this here. Even the fabrics are the most beautiful and rare we could find."

The women in the co-operative receive weekly wages, transportation, food and yoga classes. A constant stream of international visitors and aid workers purchase the items, as well as retailers in the U.S. and now at the online store at

Sarah Petrescu travelled to Rwanda and Mozambique as a winner of the Jack Webster Foundation for Journalism 'Seeing the World through New Eyes' Fellowship - a partnership with the Canadian International Development Agency for emerging journalists to report from developing countries.



Some of the latest statistics compiled from the UNAIDS 2006 Update on the Global AIDS Epidemic and the United Nations 2008 Country Report

- In 2006, about two-thirds of all persons infected with HIV (about 25 million) were living in sub-Saharan Africa.

- AIDS deaths in sub-Saharan Africa represent 72 per cent of global AIDS deaths.

- People living with HIV/AIDS in Rwanda: 190,000

- AIDS deaths in 2005: 21,000

- 75.8 per cent of women never tested for HIV.

- 78.1 per cent of men never tested for HIV.

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