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Testimony and calls for unity set the stage for a global AIDS conference in Kigali

© HIV/AIDS Implementers' Meeting/2007
Rwandan President Paul Kagame speaks at the opening session of the HIV/AIDS Implementers' Meeting in Kigali.

KIGALI, Rwanda, 15 June 2007 – Some 3,000 men, women and children gathered earlier this week at Kigali’s Amahoro Stadium to make an emphatic statement prior to the 2007 HIV/AIDS Implementers’ Meeting, which opens here in the Rwandan capital tomorrow. The international conference will bring 2,000 delegates from around the world to exchange lessons learned on AIDS prevention, treatment and care.

The atmosphere at the stadium was festive and the drummers were immaculate in their traditional dress. Sweet music wafted through the air as the crowd raised their voices in song. They had one thing on their minds: the need for men and women to fight HIV and AIDS together.

It has been said that the AIDS pandemic bears the face of a woman. In Rwanda, which has made phenomenal progress in the empowerment of women, the disproportionate impact of HIV on women remains worrying, as it does in many other countries in sub-Saharan Africa.

© UNICEF Rwanda/2007
The Executive Secretary of Rwanda’s National AIDS Control Commission, Dr. Agnes Binagwaho and UNICEF Director of Programmes Alan Court at the opening session of the UNICEF pre-meeting on HIV/AIDS in Kigali, Rwanda.

Testimony about effects of genocide

To help address the impact of AIDS on children and women – and to plan for strengthening partnerships, scaling up interventions and achieving results in this area – a three-day pre-meeting of HIV experts from UNICEF was also convened in Kigali this week. The pre-meeting led up to the 16-19 June Implementers' Meeting, sponsored by PEPFAR (the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, a five-year, $30 billion US Government initiative), UNAIDS, UNICEF, WHO, the World Bank, the Global Fund to fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, and the Rwandan National AIDS Control Commission (NAC).

A related event on women and AIDS was hosted on Wednesday by the Rwandan Ministry of Gender and Family Promotion and the NAC, with support from UNAIDS, UNICEF and UNIFEM. Participants heard moving personal testimony from a member of Ihorere Munyarwanda (Rwandan, Be Soothed), a community-based organization helping women overcome the trauma of the country’s 1994 genocide.

“This is my life – a nightmare to me ever since the genocide,” the woman said. “Those heartless people whose hands are filled with blood robbed me of my dignity. A mighty gang attacked my home, left me naked the way I was born, in front of my young child… Then they took turns raping me and my little child saw all this.

“Afterwards,” she continued. “I was tested and found to be infected with HIV.”

The staff at Ihorere Munyarwanda counselled the woman and put her on antiretroviral (ARV) treatment. Now she tells her story so that other women like her don’t have to live in fear and can seek treatment.

Determined and courageous women

The rape of an estimated 150,000 women during the Rwandan genocide left many emotionally traumatized, impoverished, lacking access to any form of social protection and exposed to HIV infection.

And the effects are lingering. According to UNIFEM, young women aged 15-24 years in Rwanda are still three times more likely to be infected with HIV than men in the same age group. The Rwandan National Council of Women says cultural factors and women’s poor socio-economic status are the main causes.

To address this disproportionate impact, the council’s poverty-reduction programmes empower HIV/AIDS-affected women by helping them raise their household income levels.

“Women’s limited voice in decision-making is worsening the spread of HIV,” said UNIFEM National Programme Officer Donnah Kamashazi. “Against all odds, however, they continue to fight HIV and AIDS with inspiring courage and determination.”

Added the Mayor of Kigali, Dr. Aisa Kirabo Kakira: “We should unite our efforts. We should be ready to help those living with HIV, and to continue building our capacities to fight the scourge.”

Amy Bennett contributed to this story from New York.



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