A women’s group in Rwanda becomes an anchor of hope against great odds

Published: 24 December 2012 10:00 CET

By Nancy Okwengu

Before the Rwanda Red Cross Society came to Gatsibo, many women in the area felt alone and helpless. They were living in extreme poverty and many were suffering from HIV/AIDS. Red Cross volunteers suggested they form a self-help group to support each other and to rise up against the challenges they faced. 64 women took up that challenge.

Mkajambere Madin, president of the group, says the Red Cross came at just the right time. “When the volunteers approached us about forming a group, everyone was jubilant. We were hopeful that it was the solution we had been waiting for,” she says.

Volunteers helped the women organize the group, and gave them eight pigs to get started. Together they decided to sell two of the pigs and use the funds to buy a cow. That cow has since had four calves, while the milk is improving nutrition among the children. The pigs have also swelled in numbers; a total of 48 pigs have now been distributed among the group members.

The women meet regularly to discuss various income generating activities that they can initiate individually or as a group. This includes purchasing land to cultivate bananas that can be sold at the local market. They also contribute to a joint account where they can borrow at minimal interest rates to start other businesses like selling avocadoes, tomatoes, and sorghum.

Constanze Nyirambaroshimana, a 52-year-old mother of seven, says her youngest daughter was born 12 years ago and was diagnosed with HIV in 2005. She grew weak and stopped going to school. Constanze received nutritional advice from the Red Cross volunteers, and, with money earned through the women’s group, she was able to purchase medication for her daughter. The little girl is now doing well and has rejoined her classes.

“Red Cross volunteers taught me about nutrition, how to maintain a kitchen garden, and how best to prepare foods,” says Nyirambaroshimana. “This has helped me care for my daughter and myself in a proper way. We have both put on weight. I have also learned how to prevent infection of other family members through abstinence and condom use, and have taught those lessons to my children.”

Health training is an important component of the group. Eight women have been trained by the Rwanda Red Cross Society, and they, in turn, raise awareness about HIV/AIDS prevention, use of drugs, family planning, and safe delivery.

Mkabarisa Elian was devastated when she was diagnosed with HIV, but joining the group gave her hope and a desire to live. Her two little girls, four-year-old Wimulisa and two-month-old Wineza have benefited greatly from the cows milk. “Wimulisa, whose name means ’don’t cry anymore‘ was malnourished, but she is now back on her feet,” she says.

This women’s group has helped reduce the stigma associated with HIV/AIDS, and has encouraged people to be tested. By coming out, they get treatment and moral support, especially from other infected people with whom they can discuss their condition. “Moral support helps us become stronger and hopeful because we share our experiences and pain together. It is the most important achievement of this program,” says Constanze, “We are allowing people to be each other’s anchor.”