RWANDA: Defying History
Today, AVEGA is known globally for its advocacy on behalf of widows and survivors with HIV. Of an estimated 250,000 women and girls who survived rape, an estimated three-quarters contracted HIV as a result, AVEGA estimated. Before antiretroviral treatment arrived in Rwanda, many developed AIDS and died. In 2003, AVEGA and other groups sounded the global alarm, pressuring world leaders to help save the survivors and their children, also HIV positive. Globally, international activists and medical professionals responded, joining leaders like Dr. Binagwaho, AVEGA, Solidarité, and many local NGOs to bring in lifesaving HIV care and drugs.
For genocide and rape survivors, confronting HIV meant confronting how they contracted the virus. That meant reliving the trauma of sexual violence. “Up to then we were learning to die,” recalled Consolata. “After we had to learn to live.”
“We can never forget—it’s our duty to our families and our nation to never forget,” says AVEGA’s Umurungi. “It’s our duty to survive and to assure this never happens again. That means we have had to participate. We have become leaders.”
HIV-positive women have emerged as outspoken community- and peer-educators and activists, leading support groups, visiting patients’ homes, and spreading the message of HIV prevention. “The most important and biggest progress we’ve made is that our women with HIV have been able to develop a positive quality of life, and understand that having HIV is not the end of the world—that it’s possible to continue living positively,” said Shamsi Kazimbaya, Executive Secretary at the Rwanda’s chapter of the Society of Women and AIDS, or SWAA. “We get there through psychosocial counseling. Secondly, we have to address poverty, so we have an economic program to reinforce their capacity with trainings and small income-generation programs that we help finance. Of course, it’s a process, and our role is mainly advocacy to find the funding and support the women.”
Rwanda’s Girl Effect
Among Rwandan leaders, there’s consensus that education is the critical key to empowering women and girls who can’t advance far without it—especially poor, rural residents. That’s why the government made public education free, and in 2008, rolled out a Girls’ Education Policy. Pregenocide, Rwandan boys outnumbered school girls 9 to 1. Now both attend primary school in equal numbers—97%—though fewer than 13% of girls attend secondary school. Girls make up 50% of college students.
“Not every woman has benefited in the same way, and that has a lot to do with the lack of education for girls,” said Maria Bwakira, the dynamic in-country director of the new Rwanda Girls Initiative, which just opened the Gashora Girls Academy, the country’s first math and science upper-secondary boarding school for girls. Its first class has 90 girls, and many seek scholarships to attend.
“Education is the key. We have a generation, even two, in Rwanda that did not get it. But for the ones coming up now, we can do something,” said Bwakira.
Over at the new Centre for Gender, Culture, and Development at the Kigali Institute of Education, a modern facility with new computers and a growing library of resources on the women’s movement, the program is “devoted to thinking through the complexities of sex and gender identity.” A first Master of Social Science, Gender and Development class began in January with 50 students—nine of them men, including two from the Rwanda Men’s Resource Center—a new men’s group fighting sexual violence. “We are engaged in consultancies and research—developing a gender audit and baseline, gender policy, and gender action plan for the National University of Rwanda,” reported director Shirley Randall in April, ticking off a long list of activities. She hopes to develop a distance-learning program for teachers studying in rural areas.
Blink, then look again: Next year, or in the future, the young girls at Gashora Academy will return to remote home villages to teach and empower others in “girls clubs” that will dot Rwanda, if Bwakira fulfills her dream. Their brothers may join Randall’s new gender master class, and write a new chapter of men’s growing role in the liberation of women. Like their mothers, and grandmothers, they will defy history.