From fear to faith: Women living with HIV at the forefront of sensitisation

Sylivie Muneza, the President of the network of People Living with HIV handing over a cheque to Francine Uwamaliya, Head of Operations as a contribution towards Agaciro Development Fund receive. Jean d’Amour Mbonyinshuti

When Sylvie Muneza was diagnosed with HIV nearly 20 years ago, she became hopeless, fearing she was nearing death.

The mother of one was suffering from Tuberculosis before she was diagnosed with HIV/AIDs.

“I suffered from cough for a long time and when I went for medical tests, I was diagnosed with TB. Months later, doctors tested me and delivered the bad news that I was infected with HIV-AIDS,” she says

That was back in 1998 when there were no antiretroviral drugs for treating HIV infections in Rwanda. Muneza was put on TB treatment alone.

“I became seriously sick and lost weight. I had 12 kilogrammes. I was bedridden and waited for my day to die,” she recounts.

Besides the physical pain, Muneza endured sustained years of stigma from relatives, friends and members of her community.

“People could visit me just to confirm whether I was still alive,” she said.

Muneza’s shattered hope was revived in 2003 when she got involved in government’s initiated awareness campaigns about HIV/AIDS. This exposed her to Antiretroviral (ARV) drugs.

That time, the government had started to offer free ARV drugs. She was one of the first recipients of such drugs.

“When I started taking medicine, I regained my strength and overcame the fear of death,” she narrated.

It is 15 years since Muneza started taking ARV drugs.

“I have been consistent in taking ARV drugs. I don’t feel sick often and sometime I forget that I am HIV positive,” she says

A resident of Nyamirambo sector in Nyarugenge district, Muneza runs a retail shop.

“I hope that I will live longer. I am grateful to the good leadership because I would have died long ago had I not been facilitated to access ARV drugs,” Muneza said.

She is now the President of People Living with HIV (RRP+)—which comprises of 120,000 members.

The cooperative is the umbrella arm of 300 other cooperatives of People Living with HIV/AIDs across the country who are engaged in agribusiness and artisanal activities among other small business ventures.

The organisation plays a critical role sensitising members of the society to carryout regular HIV tests and encouraging those who are positive to take ARVs in order to improve their health.

According to official figures, the HIV prevalence in the country stands at 3 per cent and higher among women at 3.7 per cent. Prevalence among men is 2.2 percent, according to figures from Rwanda Biomedical Centre (RBC).

The trend has remained the same as reported in the Demographic health Survey (DHS 2005) data and the stable HIV prevalence is due to a proportional decrease of new infections and in AIDS-related deaths.

More efforts have been deployed by the government and partners, mainly to avoid new infections by encouraging voluntary testing and adopting preventive measures.

Others include boosting efforts to increase awareness, strengthening ownership and accountability to end HIV/AIDS among children and keep mothers alive and healthy.

The government encourages all pregnant mothers to go for antenatal care and get tested for HIV/AIDs

According to UNAIDS data of 2018, the number of AIDS-related deaths is the lowest this century, with fewer than 1 million people dying each year from AIDS-related illnesses, thanks to sustained access to antiretroviral therapy.

Three out of four people living with HIV now know their status the first step to getting treatment. And now a record 21.7 million people are on treatment.

The global decline in deaths from AIDS-related illness has largely been driven by progress in sub-Saharan Africa, particularly eastern and southern Africa, which is home to 53 per cent of the world’s people living with HIV.

AIDS-related mortality declined by 42 per cent from 2010 to 2017 in eastern and southern Africa, reflecting the rapid pace of treatment scale-up in the region.

Just a week ago, the RRP+ contributed Rwf1.5 million to Agaciro Development Fund as part of its efforts to contribute towards the country’s efforts to improve citizens’ social welfare.

“It is our efforts to recognise the government support to ensure that we get free ARV drugs and live a better and longer life. We can’t be thankful enough and we will keep thanking as we grow stronger,” she says

Officials from Agaciro Development Fund welcomed the donation, saying that what mattered most was not the amount of money donated but the good will of people who would otherwise consider themselves as vulnerable and needy to be supported.

Agaciro Development Fund has so far received Rwf54 billion from individuals and institutions, including over Rwf10 billion which is return on the investments it has made.