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Rwanda: Gift for Life

AfricaFocus Bulletin
Dec 21, 2005 (051221)
(Reposted from sources cited below)

Editor's Note

In Rwanda, as around the African continent, people's lives depend not only on governments and on global policymaking, but most directly on their own efforts and those of countless small organizations that make it their business to provide help for survival and finding new ways to rebuild lives and communities. One such effort, focusing on genocide survivors in Rwanda living not only with the aftermath of rape but also with HIV/AIDS, is Gift for Life, a campaign initiated by African Rights in Rwanda.

This AfricaFocus Bulletin contains a short summary of this ongoing program, and excerpts from a 2004 report by African Rights based on interviews with over 200 rape survivors. The report, published on the web site of the UK-based SURF Survivors Fund
( also contains background on Rwandan women's organizations working on this and related issues. Another Bulletin sent out today contains excerpts from a report from the Alternatives to Violence Project, which is working with judges in Rwanda involved in the local Gacaca process of genocide cases.

For earlier AfricaFocus Bulletins and links on Rwanda, see

Note: Today's two issues of AfricaFocus Bulletin are the last for 2005. My best wishes to readers for the holidays and for our common work and concerns for Africa as we enter the new year. Publication will resume in the second half of January.

Thanks to all of you who have supported AfricaFocus Bulletin this year. Your support will continue to be needed in 2006. To make a voluntary subscription payment, visit

++++++++++++++++++++++end editor's note+++++++++++++++++++++++

Gift for Life:

A People-to-People Campaign for Rwanda

Empowering women, transforming lives: Providing care and support to Rwandan women, who, raped during the 1994 genocide, are now living with AIDS.

In 1994, during the genocide in Rwanda, close to one million people were killed and thousands of women and girls sexually assaulted. Many of these women who were raped were also infected with HIV. Today, more than a decade later, they continue to live with the trauma of the past, struggling to care for their families while living with, and slowly dying of AIDS.

The Gift for Life Program

Gift for Life is a program of African Rights in Rwanda which supports women who were raped and are now living with AIDS. In 2003, African Rights collected over 200 testimonies of rape survivors, many of whom were infected with HIV as a result. Their stories, published in Broken Bodies, Torn Spirits, speak compellingly of their horrific experiences and the continued impact of the genocide on their lives. A number of those interviewed have already died because they lacked access to information, drugs or basic resources, such as food. Poverty and ill health are making survival next to impossible for these women they are living out a death sentence that eleven years ago broke their spirits and is now breaking their bodies.

Since the Gift for Life program was launched, a crucial step has been taken in Rwanda: Anti-retroviral drugs (ARVs) are now being provided by the Ministry of Health, free of charge. The focus of the Gift for Life program is to enable the women who need drugs to access them and to sustain their treatment over the longer term. Gift for Life acknowledges that in an environment where gender inequalities, poverty and stigma are challenges women living with AIDS face every day, it is extremely difficult to adhere to the strict regimen associated with ARV treatment, even when the drugs are free.

This regimen is consistently hampered by physical and emotional realities which, when combined, make the free access to drugs appear to be the easy step. These realities include ill health, post-traumatic stress syndrome, substandard housing, social isolation and stigma, lack of food and adequate nutrition, lack of clean water, the absence of transportation to the clinic or hospital; they include no means of livelihood to put food on the table, to keep themselves and their families clothed, and keep their children in school. In addition, many women are also caring for orphans of the genocide or for sick relatives and friends, an added burden to already untenable living situations.

Gift for Life will not only provide funds for medical care, but supplementary support, both practical and emotional, to ensure that women living with HIV/AIDS can realistically sustain the treatment regimen required to stay healthy and take charge of their lives.

Gift for Life is an international campaign, bringing together a network of concerned individuals, some offering financial contributions, others donating their time and skills. Most of us are based in Africa, particularly Rwanda, the US or the UK, but our aim is to make giving truly global. Among the contributors so far are people from all walks of life and backgrounds, often with a personal experience of Rwanda, but always with a special concern for the needs of survivors of rape and genocide. They include Rwandese people living in the diaspora, journalists, lawyers, students, academics, women's rights activists, medical professionals, entertainers and filmmakers, business professionals, as well as many other concerned people. Our community of support is new but growing.

How does the program work?

Gift for Life is based on a 'people-to-people' approach; a campaign that starts small, but thinks big; a campaign that connects individual actions to a wider community of support that in turn connects directly to improving the lives of Rwandan women living with AIDS. Assessments undertaken by African Rights estimate that the cost of supporting one woman per year is between $1500 to $2000 (the larger amount takes into account the needs of children who are HIV positive). This covers treatment, food/nutrition, school fees, help with housing, and other necessities that are specific to the individual woman (such as trauma counseling, paying a helper or "buddy" to ensure regular intake of ARVs, boosting income-generating opportunities). Additional funds will be raised for training community health workers to support the women and for the transport and administrative costs of African Rights staff that will maintain and monitor the program.

The program began with a small group of women in the towns/provinces of Butare and Cyangugu. With a relatively small effort, their lives are already being transformed. The program continues to grow in a contained and steady manner, increasing the number of women supported in step with the funds being raised. African Rights is working at the community level in partnership with medical practitioners, hospitals administering ARV treatment, several local NGOs, and faith-based organizations, to ensure that the funds raised for each woman will meet their specific needs.

This is where you come in. How can you help?

Gift for Life urges you to support the campaign and raise either $1500 or $2000 per year for four years to support one rape survivor. Contribute in any way you can as individuals, as members of a group, through community fundraisers or get-togethers with friends. Ask ten friends to form a Gift for Life team, or build upon existing groups book clubs, faith-based groups, women's groups, sororities, bridge clubs, investment groups, etc. Watch a film on Rwanda, hold a dinner, a yard sale, a bake sale; encourage your local bookstore to display of Rwandan books with a sign-up list; send out a mailing to family and friends. Be as creative as you can.

Funds raised will be sent regularly to African Rights in Kigali, Rwanda, the main administrator of the program in Rwanda. Gift for Life is requesting groups/teams/individuals to consider committing to the program for five years.

Gift for Life's fiscal sponsor is the United Methodist Committee on Relief, a program of the General Board of Global Ministries of the United Methodist Church, New York.

Tax deductible contributions in the US should be sent to: Gift for Life, P.O. Box 840, Montclair, NJ 07042

Checks should be made out as follows: On the "Payable to" line: UMCOR Advance #982345 On the memo line: HIV/AIDS Program - Gift For Life

[The SURF Survivors Fund in the UK ( also provides support for these programs in Rwanda.]

Coordinators and Partners of the Gift for Life Program

Gift for Life is a program of African Rights, a human rights organization that advocates on behalf of those suffering injustice and oppression. It focuses on countries scarred by violence, including Rwanda and Somalia, to highlight abuses and bring the voices of victims, as well as other concerned parties, to the centre of debates on how to secure rights

The coordinators are:

In Rwanda: Rakiya Omaar, Director, African Rights, has carried out extensive research and written widely on genocide, conflict, human rights and the search for peace, seeking in particular to provide a platform for the perspective of ordinary Africans on the issues that touch their lives. A Somali and a lawyer by training, she divides her time between Rwanda and Somaliland. In addition, African Rights, Rwanda is providing support through its staff in Kigali.

In the US: Stephanie Urdang, is a journalist and consultant on gender and HIV/AIDS and long time activist on human rights and gender equality issues. She was until recently the Advisor, Gender and HIV/AIDS for the UN Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM). She is a South African who lives in Montclair, New Jersey, USA.

Email contact:

Broken Bodies, Torn Spirits Living with Genocide, Rape and HIV/AIDS

April 2004

African Rights Working for Justice
PO Box 3836, Kigali, Rwanda
Tel: 00 250 501007 Fax: 00 250 501008

[Introduction and brief excerpts only. The full 101-page report, with extensive quotes from interviews (names changed) is available as a pdf file at]


For some victims, there is no life after rape; they lose their health and happiness. Women raped during the 1994 genocide in Rwanda lead a uniquely troubled existence and many feel their survival is its own form of torture. They are desperately impoverished, commonly infected with HIV/AIDS and are responsible for several children. They see their lives as "finished" or "another form of martyrdom"; one woman described herself as "a living dead person."

The suffering of "rape survivors" interviewed for this report is extreme; many see no prospect of recovery. No one can revive the millions killed in genocide and conflict over the past decade in this region, but it is surely not beyond the capacity of governments, international agencies and non- governmental organizations (NGOs), working together, to restore quality of life to these women. Broken Bodies, Torn Spirits identifies their problems and some possibilities for addressing them.

Researched in the course of a year across 11 of Rwanda's 12 provinces, this study is intended as a contribution to the many ongoing efforts to improve responses to rape, HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted infections (STIs) in the Great Lakes region and more widely in Africa. It addresses an issue confronting all post-conflict and conflict-ridden societies, particularly on this turbulent continent the rapid spread of infections in the context of sexual violence. In accounts of rape during the 1994 genocide and their experiences since, 185 Rwandese and 16 Burundian citizens, two of them male, reach out beyond their own dire circumstances as informants and advocates on a critical wider problem. They speak of extreme cruelty compounded by missed medical opportunities and humanitarian failures.

HIV/AIDS is steadily draining the life out of millions of African men, women and children. Awareness of the extent of the pandemic is now high and, increasingly, positive action is being taken across the continent to address the needs of people living with HIV/AIDS and to prevent infections. African governments cannot address this crisis alone and need the full backing of the international community.1 This report provides yet more evidence to back the campaign to ensure supplies of cheap anti-retroviral drugs in Africa. Only a handful of the women interviewed had taken anti-retrovirals and none had done so consistently. Maintaining the status quo, where the majority of those infected with HIV/AIDS cannot access effective treatment for the condition, constitutes a daily human rights violation.

Recent estimates suggest that some 500,000 people in Rwanda are infected with HIV/AIDS; these statistics may not be totally reliable. But what is beyond doubt is that the disease represents a national disaster, now and for the future. The Government of Rwanda has made apparent its awareness and concern, but as in most African nations struggling to meet this unprecedented challenge provision for prevention of HIV/AIDS and the care, treatment and support of sufferers remains inadequate. All People Living with HIV/AIDS (PWLAs) urgently need appropriate and consistent information, treatment and care.3 Genocide rape victims are a minority within this group although exactly how many there are remains to be established but this report emphasises that they have particular requirements and cannot simply be integrated within wider programmes aimed at PWLAs.

This is not the first report concerned with rape in this region and sadly it will not be the last. Rape is a standard weapon of war and tyranny, perpetrated with impunity across Africa, from Algeria to Zimbabwe. The reluctance of some victims and communities to speak out about this crime is understandable but is frequently a barrier to action. In Rwanda, genocide survivors who were raped are reluctant to come forward, but many have been prepared to tell their stories and to testify against their persecutors partly it seems because they have nothing left to lose. In a brief research trip to Burundi, African Rights interviewed 16 witnesses. Their accounts emphasize that conflict and instability continue to fuel the incidence of rape in the Great Lakes region and the prospects for all survivors remain grim.

Rather than the systematic programme of rape implemented in 1994 in Rwanda, women in Burundi fall victim to attack in various contexts. Their experiences illustrate the vulnerability of women of all ages in conflict-ridden societies. Their persecutors range from soldiers and militia to neighbours and thugs. In many respects their everyday predicament resembles that of victims in Rwanda. These women are usually profoundly isolated, have already experienced social rejection or have lost their extended families to conflict or genocide. But the unique struggles of rape victims in Rwanda are also emphasized in contrast. Rwandese women were plunged into an instant, overwhelming and multi- dimensional crisis in 1994, and the rape was just one element of this.

Poverty is a major constraint upon women's ability to reclaim their lives after rape. Their collective predicament is to be drowning in a series of crises, none of them completely soluble. But unless they can find some economic security they will remain utterly dependant upon State or charitable interventions in every aspect of their lives. Not only does this destroy their confidence and self-esteem on a daily basis, it is profoundly insecure. As is evident from women's testimonies, direct financial assistance is at best intermittent and seeking it requires energy, awareness and even money for transport that the women lack. In this context, women are condemned to limp from one handout to the next, and sometimes have nothing to eat.

The only heartening evidence to emerge concerns how women draw support from each other, through women's groups working particularly with rape victims. In this study, women give feedback on some existing initiatives providing informal evaluations of their efficacy. On this sensitive issue, women need advice and assistance from those they can most easily identify with and trust.

We hope and believe the honesty and strength of the 199 women and two men who participated in this project will promote the establishment of appropriate and effective programmes, particularly in conflict and post-conflict situations in Africa. Their accounts provide insights into a range of relevant problems in the areas of HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment, the treatment of other sexually transmitted diseases, trauma, and social issues. Women offer a diversity of private perspectives which merit consideration in attempts to fight the spread of HIV/AIDS and other STDs and to rehabilitate rape victims. In particular, the findings are of direct relevance in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) where, with a negotiated peace settlement and the appointment of a new government, the opportunities to provide assistance to rape survivors are widening.

Although most interviewees did not request anonymity, we have concealed all their identities to protect what remains of their privacy. They participated in this project willingly, but invariably with anguish, reliving their ordeals of sexual torture and rape and explaining in detail the painful emotional and physical consequences. Not all had contracted the HIV virus; some tested negative and even more were uncertain of their status, although all provided useful information. 83 were, however, infected and almost all were ill at the time of the interview, some critically. Through the personal accounts given in this report we are now intimate party to their sense of despair and degradation. They have provided information to help stimulate and define good practice in the care of rape victims and the treatment and prevention of HIV/AIDS, but many of these women will not live to see the systemic improvements necessary to make their lives tolerable.

It is a matter of the deepest regret to all at African Rights that some of the women we spoke to have already died since the documentation began. They have left us their testimonies these are precious records and they will not be forgotten. Nevertheless, their deaths in pitiful circumstances mark an appalling failure, in which we now feel implicated. It would now be unconscionable if the remaining women do not experience any relief as a result of their courageous participation in this project.

The Primary Concern: The Future of Children

Overwhelmingly, the women we spoke to were single mothers; many were also caring for orphans. They all fear for their children's lives and those who are very ill or have tested HIV-positive worry intensely. Commonly, they believe that if they had a home to leave to their children they would be more secure, but most were in temporary, rented or shared accommodation. They all felt the future for their children was grim and not without reason.

Terminally ill women need to be given help to plan for their children's life when they are gone. In Rwanda and Burundi there are already so many orphans, left by the genocide, conflict and upheaval the nations have known. But programmes to care for AIDS orphans must now become a priority. Beyond the development of programmes to care for AIDS orphans, women, and indeed their children, require assistance, information and reassurance in this area. Organizations like Avega, or community leaders that women know and trust, given the resources, could strengthen their capacity to counsel women and help them make practical arrangements. If women believe their children will survive them and will be provided with care and opportunities, they are much more likely to come to terms with their illness, and to be able to cope on a daily basis.

The prospect of death is unbearable to women when they think about the life awaiting their children.


"Who" asked GrÉce in Butare," is going to bring up my children when there are no surviving members of the family?" GrÉce's story is among the most heartbreaking we have ever recorded. Now aged 40, she has a family of four children to look after, and she has been their sole carer since her husband was murdered in 1994. She is infected with HIV/AIDS which she feels certain was a result of the rapes she endured. Even more devastating for GrÉce was that her eldest daughter was raped at the age of only six, and she too is HIV positive. She was pregnant with the youngest at the time of the rape and has not had him tested, but she said the other two children are fine.

"Once I'd found out my results, I started to think about the problems my children will have. The situation became worse when I learnt that my eldest daughter was condemned to the same fate. My daughter has been braver than me, but you can see that she worries about the future of the little ones. She wonders how they're going to live without their mother and their elder sister. She asked me not to tell anybody that we're HIV positive. When I'm out and about, I see everybody looking at me and I've convinced myself that they all know that I contracted the AIDS virus. "

Before 1994, the family was relatively secure economically GrÉce's husband was a teacher. They have moved back into their home which, though looted and damaged, was not completely demolished and GrÉce has done her best to repair it. What she wants, above everything else, "is to have my life back."

Knowing that this is impossible makes it futile, in her view, to have aspirations. "My wishes cannot be realized unless I retrieve my life. Otherwise, there's nothing else I want."

She prefers not to go on living, but her sense of responsibility to her children gives her a purpose to continue the battle for their sake. "I need to live a bit longer so that I can bring up my children who aren't ill."


AfricaFocus Bulletin is an independent electronic publication providing reposted commentary and analysis on African issues, with a particular focus on U.S. and international policies. AfricaFocus Bulletin is edited by William Minter.

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