A Model manner to support children orphaned by AIDS in Rwanda
By Mia Brandt and Misbah Sheikh
Rutsiro, Rwanda, June 2010 - In the heart of western Rwanda, amidst a thousand hills in the district of Rutsiro, live hundreds of children orphaned by HIV and AIDS. Estimates indicate that nationwide, this number is around 23.000 – but here in this district, there is an NGO that is modelling an approach for the care and support of these children that UNICEF hopes the Government of Rwanda will use to reach all orphans in the country.
Through UNICEF support, APESEK provides children orphaned by AIDS with housing, health insurance, access to school, vocational skills training and empowers them to make informed choices when it comes to reproductive health, HIV testing, treatment and counselling. Most importantly, they organize a community of “mentor mothers” – women from the neighbourhood, who look out for the children and protect them, making sure they have the basics as best as they can.
To ensure that the children have some sort of income, APESEK also provides child headed households with micro-credit, goats, sheep and helps them create kitchen gardens.
Laurence Nyiramahirwe is an 11 year old girl who lives with her two younger brothers in Rutsiro. Her nine year old brother, Etienne, has development disabilities and difficulty talking. Their parents died of AIDS when Laurence was just eight. The three young children were separated and sent to live with relatives. Laurence saw that all three were being neglected and abused and decided - at age eight - to go get her brothers, take them out of the relatives' homes, and bring the family of three siblings together again. They went back to the empty home where they had lived with their parents and set up house there. With the help of APESEK and her loving "mentor mother", Rahabu Ntibaringanira, the little family is surviving, going to school, and growing food.
"I even met with Etienne's teachers to explain his disability so that they will be patient and kind with him," Laurence gravely explains "We are so thankful to have a better home to live in today as well as someone who looks out for us. I can't imagine what would have happened to us if APESEK wasn't here."
Fifteen year old Jaqueline Nirabarabwiriza and her brother Pierre Nabimana have a similar story. Their mother died of AIDS when Jaqueline was eight; their father, long before that. For six years after their mother's death they lived, isolated and struggling in the forest. Jaqueline and Pierre tried to make a shelter out of rough materials they scavenged but the rain would pour in no matter how hard they tried. They ate rarely and did not go to school for six years.
Then APESEK found them and today, they have a wonderful little house and a garden. They also have the love and support of their mentor, Consolee Ntakirutimana (who they call "Maman") who was an orphan helped by Apesek when she was a child. Today she is a proud APESEK counsellor.
The genocide of 1994 left Rwanda with the highest proportion of orphans to the total population of underseventeen year olds in the world. Traditional protective structures for children including family networks, the judicial system and the education system, were either weakened or destroyed. APESEK was created in 2002 and currently supports 900 children orphaned by AIDS, half of whom are heads of their own households.
Besides individual support to the children, APESEK also works with local communities to reduce stigma and improve legal protection for these children, especially against gender based violence, sexual abuse and conflicts related to family property inheritance.
UNICEF provides technical and financial assistance to APESEK to carry out its programmes as well as to lobby local authorities about the rights of children affected by HIV.