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Rwandan Women: Being Positive
by Marie-Jo Proulx
2008-04-01

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Marie-Jo Proulx is a former writer for Windy City Times. Last summer, she was a member of the Rwanda Initiative, a capacity building project of Carleton University's school of journalism. While in Kigali, she wrote for the Rwanda News Agency and a weekly newspaper.

The following was written after an inspiring day spent with HIV-infected women. In honor of International Women's Day ( March 8 ) , Proulx dedicated the following article to them.

Kigali, July 11, 2007

I wasn't going to do stories on AIDS in Africa. I figured the topic had been amply covered in the mainstream media. People will be tired of white reporters harping about it, I thought.

That was foolish. You can't walk anywhere in Kigali without coming across a local or international NGO ( non-governmental organization ) that supports people living with HIV/AIDS. Every diagnosis is news to somebody—and especially bad news for women.

For wives and mothers, a positive test result can carry devastating consequences—not because of a lack of medication; the government subsidizes treatment for all who can't afford it. Premature death is no longer the threat it was before the development of effective drug cocktails. For many women, the real peril is rejection.

A reporter I work with is supporting his sister and her two children because her husband threw her out when he found out she was positive. She was infected by her first husband before he died. My colleague is now responsible for a household of three adults and five kids. He works two jobs, rarely eats lunch and has the office's most endearing smile.

His sister's predicament is representative of Africa's struggle with AIDS.

I spent the morning at the Rwanda chapter of the Society for Women and AIDS in Africa ( SWAA ) , where they hold daily workshops for mothers and families infected with the virus. After a few minutes of relaxation exercises, participants are divided into four groups: adults, young ones, widows and new cases. Trained counselors then lead interactive sessions tailored to their group's specific situation and needs.

Célestin, SWAA's director of behaviour change and communication, reminds his group of the importance of following drug regimens in order to stave off opportunistic infections. When a woman points out that the medication is difficult to take without food, Célestin asks one of the few men, a veteran of the disease, to explain how, on minimal resources, he manages to keep feeding himself enough to be able to take the life-saving drugs. More questions and answers follow. The sense of community makes the sadness almost bearable.

In the afternoon, I tag along with Célestin and Shamsi, SWAA's executive secretary, as they check in on the delivery of HIV/AIDS services in Nyamirambo, Kigali's oldest neighbourhood.

As she drives the association's pick-up over the mangled dirt roads, Shamsi, a spunky and independent Muslim Rwandan, generously answers my many questions about her work, prior training and early years in the DRC. I estimate she is about 30. She says her family and friends are always on her case because she is not married yet. I want to ask why not, but I decide not to probe any further.

When we get to the large, one-room community center, about 50 people ( again, mostly women ) are waiting for us. They applaud as we enter, which makes me rather uncomfortable.

Shamsi asks me to introduce myself and explain why I have come to visit. I tell them of my interest in global health issues and I mention that I used to cover the work of several AIDS organizations in my previous job at a paper in Chicago. I thank them for welcoming me and allowing me to learn from them.

An animated counseling session then begins. Jean-Claude, Nyamirambo's director of social affairs, reviews how to avoid mother-to-child transmission and stresses the advantages of giving birth in a hospital. The use of condoms is discussed openly. The women understand the need to protect themselves against more virulent strains of HIV, but they complain that men are not very cooperative. When they are drunk, they say, there is no reasoning with their husbands. In Rwanda, as in other African countries, men make most decisions when it comes to sex.

Unexpectedly, Shamsi and Jean-Claude urge me to ask the women about any health issue I may be interested in. I seize the opportunity and inquire about children. I want to know how many they each have. They use fingers to show me and enthusiastically pose for photos.

A finger for every child

I am curious to hear what they think of family planning. When I ask if they remember the first time they were ever told about contraception, I hear 'two years ago' from a mother of seven, and 'back in school' from a gregarious woman who has recently delivered her ninth child.

The government is currently considering a bill that would limit children to three per couple. Too late for these proud women.

I tell them I admire their resilience and can't imagine myself caring for so many kids. They laugh heartily and make a few comments in Kinyarwanda. They look at me with warm smiles, but I wonder if they think I am a privileged wimp.

Although testing positive for HIV/AIDS has changed their destiny forever, the women I have met remain surprisingly, well, positive. Before I leave, they ask me to talk and write about them when I go home. I don't tell them about my obtuse initial plan not to tell their story.


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