Providing vital care for Rwanda’s vulnerable children
by Jenny Clover
September 2011 - Perched high in the hills above Rwanda’s Lake Kivu is a project that is transforming the lives of nearly 1,000 orphans and vulnerable children (OVCs).
APESEK, an organisation set up in 2002 by local teachers and nurses, offers vital support to children living with and affected by HIV and AIDS in the region of Kivumu, in Rwanda’s Western Province. The organisation’s aim is to “elevate these children up to the level of other children in the area”.
This part of Rwanda is close to neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo and has been the site of conflicts both during the 1994 genocide and in the years following it. Kivumu was one of the worst hit areas by the genocide and has a high number of widows and orphans. The region also has land shortage problems, high levels of malnutrition and alcoholism.
Emanuel Nyandwi who founded APESEK after losing a brother, his grandparents and an uncle to AIDS, estimates there are 4,500 OVCs under the age of 15 in the three districts in which APESEK works, who are receiving no assistance. His organisation helps 882 children at any one time. Currently, 52 of these children have HIV/AIDS themselves, while all the rest have lost one or both parents to HIV. Children up to the age of 17are helped by APESEK programmes, after which they are gradually transitioned into independent living.
With support from UNICEF, APESEK ensures improved access to basic social services including health, education and protection to some of the most vulnerable children, using a sustainable, community based approach. Central to this approach are the community-based mentors for child-headed households, known as Nkundabana (translated as “I love children” in Kinyarwanda). APESEK also continues to play a key role in educating and sensitising local communities and leaders on children’s rights including prevention, care and support for children living with or affected by HIV.
Dative, 16, lost both parents to AIDS when she was just two-years-old and is HIV+ herself. She is just one of hundreds of children being supported by APESEK and UNICEF. Dative and her family were one of the first to receive help from the newly-formed APESEK in 2002. Dative spent much of her childhood moving around, living in the homes of various local people, because what was left of her family – a half-brother and elderly grandmother – had nowhere to live themselves. She was badly treated by the people she lived with and neighbours would bully her because of her HIV status.
APESEK constructed a new house for Dative, her half-brother and grandmother and fully equipped it with everything from mattresses to cooking materials. The youngster said: “I am very happy to have my own house now, it means that I have respect from my neighbours and people no longer treat me badly. I feel safe with my family now.”
Because Dative and her brother attend school and their grandmother is too frail to work, the family sometimes find it difficult to feed themselves. APESEK helps them by delivering food parcels and helping them to cultivate vegetables in their garden. They also provide Dative’s school materials and uniform and help her with hospital visits and paying for her health insurance.
Despite her difficult start and health worries, Dative is thriving. She was the third highest performing student in her class last year and hopes that one day she can train to become a teacher. “I see APESEK as my parent now, because they provide all the things my parents would have if they were here,” she said.“I am very grateful for all they have done for my family.”
Although Rwanda has a low rate of HIV prevalence at 3% over 22,200 children under the age of 15 live with HIV. The country has made remarkable progress in scaling up services for children living with HIV, with the percentage of children receiving anti-retroviral treatment (ART) increasing from 5% in 2004 to 70% in 2010. The target is to reach 80% by the end of 2012. However, access to social protection interventions for the most vulnerable children including those affected by HIV remains largely inadequate because of major resource constraints.
UNICEF hopes that by supporting organisations like APESEK to model an approach to caring for vulnerable children, Rwanda’s Government can use the model to set minimum standards for all organisations working in this area to ensure that children affected receive a quality package of support and services.