Nurturing hope for a better future

Youth volunteers in Rwanda support their peers and raise awareness on HIV

By Veronica Houser
Alice, 23, twists her hands together as she tells her story of meeting UNICEF volunteers in her community.
UNICEF/UN0413356/Mulkerne
23 February 2021

HUYE, RWANDA – Celine* pressed the fingers of her left hand into her palm, staring at the floor. At just 23, Celine has already overcome more challenges than many people face in a lifetime.

Sitting in her living room, Celine recalls the events which shaped her, good and bad. She speaks quietly, still pained by certain memories, but resolutely, with an air of reconciliation.

"Every day on the way to school, I walked past a small shop. The boy who owned the shop used to tell me every day that he loved me. But he was uneducated, and I did not have feelings for him, so I ignored his advances," she says.

But Celine and her friends often visited the shop during lunch breaks and after school, buying soda or treats for themselves on the walk home.

“He kept giving me things for free,” Celine remembers, “so when he invited me to visit him, I decided to accept. He offered me juice.”

With her eyes still locked on the floor, Celine wipes her eyes twice, banishing a few wayward tears. “I did not know the juice was mixed with alcohol.”

When they were both intoxicated, the boy took advantage of Celine. Four months later, she discovered she was pregnant. Her parents were supportive, but Celine was ashamed and overwhelmed and felt compelled to drop out of her last year of high school to give birth. Depressed, she sequestered herself in her room and became severely malnourished. As a result, Celine lost her baby at just four months old.

Celine, 23, sits inside a classroom at her old school.
UNICEF/UN0358488/Mulkerne
Celine, 23, sits inside a classroom at her old school. When she was in her last year of high school, she got pregnant when a local man tricked her into drinking alcohol and assaulted her. She found solace and support through UNICEF-supported youth volunteers in her community.

“I was so lonely, and I was deeply hurt. I refused to share my story with anyone… until I met the youth volunteers.”

At one of her community’s monthly meetings, a group of young volunteers spoke about gender-based violence and its consequences. Selected and trained by UNICEF with the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA), there are 168 volunteers in Huye District, or two per administrative cell. These volunteers provide peer support for at-risk youth in their own communities and help spread awareness around HIV testing and treatment. When Celine met the volunteers, she felt inspired that young people her age were doing something meaningful in her community.

Isaac Niyokwizerwa, volunteer coordinator in his community, speaks with Celine
UNICEF/UN0413355/Mulkerne
Isaac Niyokwizerwa, volunteer coordinator in his community, speaks with Celine outside her home in Huye District.

When she mentions the volunteers, Celine lifts her eyes from the floor. On her cheeks and at the corners of her mouth, an almost imperceptible smile.

“One of my friends introduced me to Isaac, the volunteer coordinator in my village. We became very good friends, and he advised me to go for an HIV test. Luckily, I tested negative.”

But Isaac knew Celine still needed his support, so he invited her to attend his weekly meetings with other young people. With materials and training provided by UNICEF, Isaac and other volunteers use these sessions to talk about HIV prevention, safe sex and condom use, and how to access HIV testing and treatment like anti-retroviral drugs. Celine attends regularly, and even helps bring other young people to the meetings.

“One of my friends introduced me to Isaac, the volunteer coordinator in my village. We became very good friends, and he advised me to go for an HIV test. Luckily, I tested negative.”

A lab technician, Cecile Kabagwira adminsters the HIV prick test to Celine's hand at a Huye health centre.
UNICEF/UN0358487/Mulkerne
A lab technician Cecile Kabagwira administers the HIV prick test to Celine's hand at a Huye health centre.

“I finally found the confidence to share my story with others my age.” Celine sits up a little bit straighter. She glances around the room and smiles at Isaac, who has been sitting quietly with Celine. 

“I have gained so much confidence,” she continues. “Isaac and the other peer support volunteers helped me so much. Now I am nurturing hope for a better future.”

HIV group volunteer Isaac Niyokwizerwa sits with Celine at the local Huye health centre
UNICEF/UN0358493/Mulkerne
HIV group volunteer Isaac Niyokwizerwa sits with Celine at the local Huye health centre, reading the UNICEF sexual health literature.

UNICEF is piloting this volunteer programme in Huye and Gatsibo Districts. So far, over 11,800 young people in Huye alone participated in community and small-group gatherings, like the one where Celine met her volunteers. UNICEF supports these engagement sessions, mass education through radio and sports, and supports local youth centres, safe spaces where young people can get connected to services like HIV testing. Since this programme began, over 7,000 young people have been tested for HIV in Huye.

 

Celine, 23, sits outside the small building near her school that used to be a shop.
UNICEF/UN0358495/Mulkerne
Celine, 23, sits outside the small building near her school that used to be a shop. The man who raped Alice owned the shop and would often give her presents as she walked past on her way from school.

Celine eventually returned to high school and completed her studies. The boy who abused her is long absent from her community, leaving Celine feeling peaceful and safe.

“I am looking forward to building my family one day,” she concludes. “I do want to have children again. When I do, I will share my experience with them, and I will love and support them as these volunteers have done for me.”


*Note: Subject’s name has been changed to protect her identity.