Rwandan genocide survivors in need of HIV treatment



Judith Mandelbaum-Schmid




Thousands of women who were sexually assaulted and infected with HIV during the 1994 genocide in Rwanda do not have access to treatment, said the Survivors' Fund (SURF), a UK-based non-profit organization which launched a campaign on 20 April calling for the provision of affordable antiretroviral treatment for women infected with HIV during the conflict which claimed at least 800 000 lives.

"These women were left impoverished after their husbands, fathers and brothers were murdered," said Mary Kayetisi Bluitt, Director of SURF, a non-profit group based in London, aiming to address the needs of women and children who survived the Rwandan massacre. "They are still suffering from trauma and have few resources, and only a handful can afford the antiretroviral drugs that could improve and prolong their lives," said Bluitt, who lost 50 members of her family during the massacres.

"It [the genocide] is still claiming victims who contracted HIV as a result of sexual violence," said Colette Delhot, Regional Adviser for Gender and Women's Health at WHO's Regional Office for Africa in Brazzaville, Congo. No one knows precisely how many women became infected during the assault, which was marked by a rash of gang rapes.

Only one organization, the Rwandan Association of Genocide Widows (AVEGA-AGAHOZO), based in the Remera area of Kigala, has published survey results. The non-profit group, which consists of 25 000 widows, estimates two-thirds of its members are now HIV-positive as a result of being raped during the 1994 conflict. "There is little doubt the numbers are actually higher, however, because many women hesitate to come forward. They ask themselves, 'Why should I get tested and find out I carry the disease? I can't get treatment anyway,'" said Bluitt. The group also estimates that of five million women living in Rwanda, half are widows who lost their families during the 1994 conflict.

According to non-profit groups like the Rwandan Association of Genocide Widows (AVEGA-AGAHOZO) and SURF, international groups and charities working in Rwanda have failed to devote sufficient attention to the genocide widows.

Delhot agrees that the Rwandan women deserve special treatment. "These women lost everything because of the genocide and are struggling to survive. We have to fight to get them access to basic health care. It is a human rights and war reparations issue, not just a health issue," she said.

The UK's Department for International Development announced in mid-April a donation of GBP 200 000 towards the cost of providing antiretroviral treatment for witnesses of the genocide suffering from AIDS.

The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, currently under way in Arusha, United Republic of Tanzania, is prosecuting some five dozen cases against the alleged ringleaders of the slaughter, which targeted the country's minority Tutsis and politically moderate Hutus. The 100 day-long assault, executed by Hutu extremists in April 2004, followed the death of Rwanda's Hutu President Juvenal Habyarimana after his aeroplane was hit by a missile.

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