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Empowering youth to prevent HIV in Rwanda

© UNICEF Rwanda/2010/Williams
Members of a small but powerful youth HIV focus group in south-western Rwanda provide information on HIV that helps peers protect their health.

By Alexandra Williams

NKANKE PARISH, Rwanda, 29 April 2010 – Situated in the lush green hills that surround Lake Kivu in southwest Rwanda, Nkanke Parish church is working toward a future free of HIV and AIDS.

Adolescents at the parish have joined a focus group that provides their community with information about HIV and AIDS, and supports those among them living with the disease. The group is part of a larger community empowerment project supported by UNICEF and the Government of Japan.

Becoming role models

The Nkanke Parish community is no stranger to hardship. When an earthquake struck the area in 2008, its church tower collapsed during a morning service, killing several people.

The area has also been hit hard by the HIV epidemic that has swept across sub-Saharan Africa.

But in the face of these challenges, the parish’s youth continue to demonstrate a commitment to a brighter future. Many have joined the small but powerful focus group dedicated to fighting HIV and AIDS in the parish.

© UNICEF Rwanda/2010/Williams
Nkanke Parish, located near Lake Kivu in south-western Rwanda, is working to prevent HIV and AIDS and to empower its young residents.

The group provides its young peers with information that enables them to protect their health. In addition, the group’s members – over 100 of them, ranging from 8 to 20 years of age – provide support to those amongst them living with HIV and AIDS, and act as inspirational role models for other young people in the community.

A forum for discussion

At focus group meetings, members like Innocenti, 19, are able to speak out about HIV and AIDS – and how the epidemic has affected their choices.

“After I tested negative for HIV, I have taken the decision to abstain from sex,” Innocenti said during a recent meeting. “I am grateful to have [the] information which protects me and my future partner’s health.”

Daniel, 15, agreed. “We all know people in the village affected by HIV,” he said. “In our HIV focus group we provide support to those living with the disease, so they are included in activities and not discriminated against."

© UNICEF Rwanda/2010/Williams
When an earthquake struck south-western Rwanda in 2008, the Nkanke Parish church tower collapsed during a morning service, killing several people.

“I have seen the suffering of HIV, so I will be careful,” he added.

‘Speak up for a better life’

Innocenti explained that allowing parish youths to speak their minds is essential to conquering the fear and stigma that often surround HIV and AIDS.

“If we are ashamed of speaking up, we can’t have open discussions and we will never be in a position to influence anything,” he said. “It is important for Rwandan youth to throw away their fear and speak up for a better life.”

The focus group is mobilized through the parish and a community health-care centre, with instruction provided by a trainer from a local non-governmental organization. The group is part of a larger children’s association, supported by UNICEF and the Government of Japan, which assists vulnerable children with health insurance, school materials and income-generating projects. All of the children in the focus group have also been tested for HIV.

Across Rwanda and sub-Saharan Africa, community empowerment projects such as the Nkanke Parish focus group are helping young people take charge of their lives – and speak up for brighter futures.



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