Improving the Lives of HIV-Positive People with Disabilities in Rwanda: Julie’s Story
“My name is Julie, and I am a 45 year old blind woman living in Rwanda. I am married to a blind man and practice small farming to sustain myself and my family. For many years I knew my HIV status and it troubled me a lot. People used to talk about me, wondering who infected a blind woman, and I would feel ashamed. I decided not to give birth because I believed I would infect my child and they would never forgive me.”
People with disabilities, like Julie, are disproportionately affected by HIV because of lack of information and marginalization. In 2008, through the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), a CDC/Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA)-funded program was launched in Rwanda to provide equitable access to HIV prevention, care, and treatment to people with disabilities.
The program, called Strengthening Communities to Integrate People with Disabilities in the National HIV & AIDS Response in Rwanda, is being implemented as a New Partners Initiative project by Handicap International. The program supports at least 1,200 people with disabilities who are infected and/or affected by HIV.
Peer education has played a key role in linking people with disabilities to HIV services such as voluntary counseling and testing, preventing mother-to-child transmission, and social support groups. This approach has increased participation of people with disabilities and reduced stigma. Strategies used to reduce discrimination included positive living, strengthening civil society, effective advocacy, mainstreaming disability, and improving services and access to services.
The project has had tremendous impact on the lives of HIV-positive disabled persons. Julie received HIV services and was later trained as a peer educator by the Rwanda Union of the Blind (RUB) and Handicap International. Through this experience, she says, “I developed self-esteem. I was encouraged by other people in the same group. I started teaching other blind people and felt good and worth about myself. I went for more counseling sessions and I am a peer counselor encouraging other people with disabilities to seek service.”
While in training as a peer educator, Julie also learned about ways to prevent mother-to-child HIV transmission. “I decided to have a child, took all the prevention medicines given at the health center, and I now have a beautiful child who is not HIV positive,” she said. “I am also doing well with my small business. The program improved my life tremendously.”