In a powerful demonstration of resilience and progress, Rwandans congregated at the Kigali Convention Centre on December 1, 2023, to commemorate World AIDS Day. This significant event not only spotlighted the commendable efforts of Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) but also provided a platform to share poignant testimonials, recognize triumphs, and address upcoming challenges in Rwanda’s ongoing battle against HIV.
Triumphs Unveiled Through Personal Journeys
Sylvie Muneza, Chairperson of the Rwanda Network of People Living with HIV/AIDS-RRP+, unfolded an inspiring journey of resilience. Born in 1972, widowed with one child, she tested HIV-positive in 1998 amidst the dual challenge of tuberculosis co-infection. Overcoming stigma and resource constraints, Muneza’s life took a positive turn in 2000 with the commencement of Antiretroviral Therapy (ART). Today, thriving with good adherence to ART, she epitomizes resilience and compassion, even founding the local NGO, Igihozo, to support those affected by HIV.
The RRP+ network, created in 2003, has grown exponentially, supporting over 130,000 beneficiaries through 500 associations, 300 cooperatives, and 16 NGOs countrywide. Muneza’s testimony encapsulates the transformative impact of collective efforts in combating HIV-related stigma and discrimination.
Muneza vividly recounted the initial despair, stating,
There was a fourth room at CHUK dedicated to treating HIV-positive individuals, where people had lost hope due to the epidemic. Now, thanks to the government and its partners, we have regained hope. We live well, infected mothers give birth to HIV-free children, and the once agonizing prospect of HIV no longer defines our lives.”
Government and NGO Collaborations
Integral to Rwanda’s success in combating HIV is the unwavering support from the Government of Rwanda and dedicated partners, including the Rwanda NGOs Forum on HIV/AIDS and Health Promotion (RNGOF). Nooliet Kabanyana, RNGOF’s Executive Secretary, highlighted their pivotal role over the past two decades, stating,
We’ve been part of this movement for more than 20 years, providing crucial support to key populations, adolescents, and tirelessly working to reduce stigma and discrimination.”
Acknowledging Achievements on International AIDS Day
On International AIDS Day, Rwanda takes pride in acknowledging substantial achievements in health improvement. Those affected by AIDS and those managing HIV through proper medication now experience a quality of life akin to their fellow citizens.
CSOs at the Forefront
Kabanyana emphasized the instrumental role played by CSOs, actively engaging with the community and achieving remarkable milestones:
Empowering Awareness: CSOs conducted extensive campaigns, educating the infected on preventing transmission, urging at-risk individuals to get tested, and facilitating access to anti-inflammatory drugs.
Diminishing Isolation: Through education and awareness initiatives, CSOs successfully reduced the isolation faced by those with HIV, promoting inclusivity and self-acceptance.
Advocacy for Laws and Policy Change: CSOs championed changes in laws and policies, ensuring that individuals at high risk and those infected receive essential health services without discrimination.
Enhancing Collaboration: CSOs fostered efficiency and collaboration, encouraging preventive measures, regular health check-ups, and timely medication through effective interaction.
Addressing Ongoing Challenges: Despite the progress, challenges persist, particularly in securing adequate funding. To achieve the 2030 goal of eradicating the epidemic, there is a pressing need to bolster the capacity of HIV programs.
A Call to Action
Kabanyana outlined a multifaceted approach to address these challenges:
Financial Reinforcement: Urgent steps are needed to increase funding and the capacity of the HIV program to extend care to those at risk and provide ongoing education.
Empowering Peer Counselors: Recognizing the vital role of peer counselors, there is a call to enhance their capacity to reach out, educate, and encourage testing among their peers.
Policy Scrutiny and Research: Continued scrutiny of policies and investment in research are essential. The government of Rwanda must persist in its efforts to stay aligned with the 2030 vision.
Inclusive Planning: Community involvement is paramount. In all activities, stakeholders should be active participants, ensuring that plans are not only executed but are shaped with their invaluable input.
Sustained efforts, informed by research and inclusive planning, are vital to realizing the vision of an HIV-free Rwanda by 2030. The resilience of the Rwandan people, coupled with the unwavering support of civil society, exemplifies the power of collective action in the face of adversity. As the journey continues, Rwanda stands poised to achieve its vision for a healthier and more hopeful future.
Government’s Commitment to the Cause
During the celebration, Dr. Basile Ikuzo, Director of the HIV Prevention Unit at Rwanda Biomedical Centre (RBC), emphasized the need for public participation. He stated, “Services are available and are free of charge. Healthcare professionals are also available. So, the message we want to give is that everyone’s part is needed so that we can eradicate HIV. We should not think that fighting HIV is for the government alone.”
The Rwanda Population-Based HIV Impact Assessment (RPHIA), conducted between October 2018 and March 2019, revealed that the prevalence of HIV among adults in Rwanda was 3 percent. Despite achievements in treatment and care, such as 95 percent of all HIV-positive individuals knowing their status and being on medication, societal contributions, particularly in fighting stigma, remain crucial.
An HIV youth ambassador in Rwamagana District highlighted that although stigma has decreased, it still persists, with schools being a focal point.
In a statement on World AIDS Day, RBC emphasized the need for inclusive social and economic development by eradicating discrimination, stigma, and practices limiting access to HIV prevention and treatment services.
The Minister of Health, Dr. Sabin Nsanzimana, advocated for innovative solutions, citing the application of long-term ARV injections in treating HIV/AIDS as a step forward. Such formulations can deliver medicines in formats like patches and injections that last weeks or months, simplifying antiretroviral treatment and ensuring better adherence.
He also said,
People living with HIV hope to care for their families, raise their children, see their grandchildren and contribute to socio-economic development. We thank everyone who contributed to raise a new sun of hope, from a death sentence to living with HIV. That is what we want to continue to see, and that is what today’s World AIDS Day celebrations mean.”
Hind M A Hassan Abdelgalli, Country Director of UNAIDS-Rwanda said:
Rwanda has not only achieved the UNAIDS 95-95-95 targets, but it has also achieved them ahead of time. The targets are for 2025 and Rwanda is already there. This is thanks to strong leadership and ownership by the government and people of Rwanda.”
As Rwanda combines resilience, community engagement, and governmental commitment, it is poised to meet the challenges of HIV and move towards a future free from the threat of AIDS.