When Esperance Maniriho, 47, a resident of Rubavu District, found out that she was HIV positive in 2007, she thought of committing suicide—it didn’t help that she was mocked by the neighbours and relatives who knew about it. ALSO READ: Living with HIV: A tale of resilience in the face of trauma and stigma People, including Maniriho’s family, started to defame her and say hurtful words to her. Self-love was distant to her, but her husband who was also HIV positive was there to comfort her and inform her more about HIV, whilst encouraging her to take antiretroviral drugs (ARVs) for HIV control. Maniriho was infected by her husband who had several other wives, some of whom were among the people who would not go near her. They would laugh at her from a distance, and not even touch anything she did, let alone share with food her. “I remember when my child asked me ‘mom, what is AIDS?’ I was shocked because we hadn’t told our children about our status because they were young. I asked her where she got it from, and she said that at her school, in lower primary, other students were saying that she had AIDS,” Maniriho told The New Times. She was hurt that the humiliation had found its way to her children, even when they were not HIV positive. “I eventually went to her school and confronted the director who was helpful enough to educate the students who had made hateful remarks. But this didn’t erase the hurt of hearing that my children were being discriminated against,” Maniriho added. ALSO READ: Information is key in fighting HIV/AIDS Maniriho then decided to join a group called ‘Pair Éducateurs’ (which means Peer-Educators) in Rubavu, of people living with HIV who raise awareness to help end the stigma in the district. It is a peer education programme by the Rwanda National Network of People Living with HIV (RRP+) which benefits more than 1,500 people across the country. “After joining the group, I slowly started the journey to self-acceptance, I learned how to deal with the stigma and discrimination, and even started to educate people more about HIV, and help people living with the virus to accept and love themselves. Joining the group helped me a lot,” Maniriho said. Doing away with discrimination Annually celebrated on March 1 by the United Nations and other international organisations, ‘Zero Discrimination Day’—started by Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/Aids (UNAIDS) in 2013— aims to promote equality before the law and in practice throughout all of the member countries of the UN. The cause, however, is not limited to ending discrimination against people living with HIV only but ending all forms of discrimination. According to UNAIDS, ‘Zero Discrimination Day’ highlights how people can be more informed about and promote inclusion, compassion, peace, and, above all, a movement for change. ALSO READ: HIV infections decrease by over 80% in Rwanda In Rwanda, several campaigns to end discrimination based on one’s HIV status have been carried out by the government and different organisations, but the role of people living with HIV has also been vital, especially in rural areas. Beatrice Uwimana, a resident of Rubavu District, said she has never faced discrimination because of her HIV status. This was a result of the work done by people like Maniriho, who even encouraged her to start treatment when she was pregnant, and thanks to this, her baby was HIV-negative at birth. She also joined the peer education programme right away, and this gave her hope for the future. “As a peer educator, I feel joy when I encourage people to take their medicine on time and to educate them to fight stigma and discrimination,” Uwimana said. According to Jean Baptiste Sayiga, also a peer educator at Mahoko Health Centre in Kanama sector, Rubavu District, there are fewer stigma and discrimination incidents because of the programme. “Here at Mahoko Health Centre, we try as hard as possible to educate the people in Rubavu about HIV, how the virus is spread, and how people who live with it are normal. Due to the lessons we provide in different parts of Rubavu and here at the centre, there are fewer reports about stigma and discrimination,” Sayiga said. Sayiga is also HIV-positive and dedicated to teaching people and providing awareness about HIV/AIDs in Rubavu. According to a 2020 study by the Rwanda Network of People Living with HIV (RRP+) and RBC, the Stigma and Discrimination Index (SDI) declined to 15 on a 100-point scale compared to 50 in 2010. However, the study results also showed that all categories of people living with HIV faced stigma and discrimination at different levels and that some categories experienced more stigma on average. More women than men faced stigma. 34.8 per cent of sampled women faced stigma, while 22.4 per cent of sampled men did. Also, 57.5 per cent of female sex workers and 50 per cent of men who have sex with men faced stigma. Nevertheless, the stigma and discrimination rating was ranked very low.