|© UNICEF Rwanda/2009/Frejd|
|Felona, who own life has been deeply affected by the AIDS pandemic, is now a counsellor for families living with HIV in Rwanda.|
By Hanna Frejd
KIGALI, Rwanda, 14 July 2009 – “In was 30 years old when my husband died,” recounts Felona. “We had three children, and then I found out that I was HIV-positive. It was very difficult for me to accept.
“But today, 14 years later,” she continues, “I am a counsellor for HIV-positive people in Kicukiro Health Centre here in Kigali. Things have changed dramatically in the last decade. When I found out I was HIV-positive, there was no medicine, no support groups. Now look at these women who are here with me today.”
Felona looks around at the women in the Kicukiro centre. “Some are knitting on machines, others have just come in to talk and others are drinking coffee,” she says. “You would not have heard of such a thing in 1996!”
‘Family Package’ initiative
Felona’s life has changed thanks in large part to an initiative launched by Rwanda’s Government and its First Lady, with support from UNICEF. This programme, known as the ‘Family Package’, helps households affected by HIV and AIDS to ensure that their family members receive care, treatment and support services.
“What we were seeing was that women would not come for treatment when they found they were HIV-positive,” explains UNICEF Rwanda’s Cecile Ndoli. “They often did not have the support from their families. The Family Package addresses this issue by reaching out to men [and] offering counselling, treatment, health insurance, family planning and nutritional support.”
The initiative also offers income-generating possibilities to affected families, she adds.
“When a pregnant woman tests HIV-positive, we take her through counselling, then we invite her husband and family members,” notes Felona. “If we see a woman does not come back, we go to her home. This is how we are able to follow up on 100 cases every year here. It is very important to follow the women throughout her pregnancy and at least six months afterwards.”
‘Not a death sentence’
About 3 per cent of the population in Rwanda today is living with HIV; more than half that number are women, and an estimated 19,000 are children. Thanks to the Family Package and similar initiatives, the number of Rwandans with HIV who are receiving anti-retroviral treatment has increased dramatically in recent years.
And services for prevention of mother-to-child transmission of HIV are now available in over half of the country’s 424 health facilities, with UNICEF supporting 20 of these programmes.
“It is important that services like this exist,” says Felona, “because being HIV-positive is not a death sentence. Look at me. I am growing, I am giving and I am living,” she adds with a smile.