PRESS CONFERENCE ON WOMEN LIVING WITH HIV/AIDS FROM SEXUAL VIOLENCE DURING GENOCIDE IN RWANDA
Press conference on Women living with hiv/aids from sexual violence
during genocide in rwanda
The experience of women in Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo who were living with HIV/AIDS as a result of the sexual violence during the 1994 genocide in Rwanda was brought to international attention during a press conference at Headquarters today, with two women who had spent more than a decade responding to the needs of such women.
As a researcher for Human Rights Watch, Binaifer Nowrojee travelled to numerous conflict zones in Africa and interviewed hundreds of rape victims. During a yearlong visit to Rwanda that began in 2003, she said it became clear that there was an HIV pandemic among those who had survived the conflict.
“They were not killed during the genocide, but they are now dying of AIDS, so in essence it was a suspended death sentence”, said Ms. Nowrojee. Rape victims, many of whom had lost their entire families, “repeatedly talked about being left to die of sadness”, she said.
Ms. Nowrojee said such women were experiencing consequences that were typical in a post-conflict society. Among them were a range of sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV/AIDS, psychological problems, and dire poverty. Rape victims faced additional challenges in breaking their silence to seek help.
“Sexual violence, unlike many other types of human rights violations, carries a very high stigma with it”, said Ms. Nowrojee. “It plays a very heavy role on these women as to whether they should speak out and seek the services they need.”
The international community needed to do more to respond to the specific needs of such women, she said. Among the ways it could do that was by integrating antiretroviral treatment into anti-poverty and development projects.
Mary Balikungeri, Director of the Rwanda Women’s Network, founded the Network as part of an effort to create an environment for women to work together and receive assistance in rebuilding their lives.
The Network had set up the Polyclinic of Hope, which functioned as more than just a hospital. “In a real sense, this is an empowering space”, she said. “It is a space that gives women opportunities to look into their medical issues, to look into their legal issues, to look into their shelter issues, to look into the future of their own children and to develop their own networks”, said Ms. Balikungeri.
Having a space of their own enabled many more women who were facing issues of stigma and discrimination to seek assistance, she said. Those women then travelled to other communities to talk about their experiences and raise awareness, she said. “These spaces help women to feel that they can be agents of change for tomorrow.”
Ms. Balikungeri said she hoped to open health centres in more communities in Rwanda, and appealed to donors for assistance.
Asked about a recent United Nations Organization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUC) report attributing most of the rapes to Government troops, Ms. Nowrojee said it was not clear how reliable those figures were. Given that large areas of the country remained inaccessible, she said aid workers could simply be reaching more victims of Government forces at present. “I always say on sexual violence figures, be careful of the numbers. They’re always underreported and difficult to get”, she said.
Asked to speak about grass-roots courts in Rwanda, Ms. Balikungeri said that her programme was aimed at keeping women engaged in that process. “We know that justice drags its feet before it can give you results”, she said.
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