Rwanda village gives AIDS victims second chance

MUHANGA, Rwanda (Reuters) - For a decade, Beata Uwitije never slept in her own bed at home. It was always a police cell, an alleyway, a bar or one of her client’s homes.

Beata Uwitije (R) sits next to her daughter Monique Uwera (C) in Muhanga district in this June 13, 2007 file photo. For a decade, Uwitije never slept in her own bed at home. It was always a police cell, an alleyway, a bar or one of her client's homes. REUTERS/Arthur Asiimwe

But the 37-year-old Rwandan ex-prostitute has made a new start in a village project that aims to re-integrate former sex workers into communities by teaching them other livelihoods.

Thanks to the World Bank-funded project in Muhanga, she now earns an income from handicrafts, farming and pig keeping.

Uwitije has AIDS, her 16-year-old daughter Monique is also a former prostitute, and they need all the help they can get.

“Maybe I am the one to blame, maybe my daughter learned from me ... maybe I was a terrible example to my children,” Uwitije says in a faint voice, tears forming in her eyes.

Strapped to her back she carries her nine-month-old granddaughter -- Monique’s child.

A report launched by the World Bank this week hailed Rwanda for taking huge steps to combat HIV and reducing the prevalence rate to about 3 percent today from 11 percent seven years ago.

This weekend, the tiny central African country hosts some 1,500 delegates attending an HIV/AIDS summit where participants will share best experiences in the fight against the disease afflicting more than 25 million Africans.

On Saturday, the emphasis was on prevention.

“Globally, for every one person who starts on antiretroviral therapy today, another six become infected with HIV,” Michel Sibide, deputy executive director of UNAIDS told the gathering.

“If we do not act now to make HIV prevention work better, the queues for HIV treatment will just get longer and responding to AIDS will get more expensive and more difficult.”

The continent faces a mixed pattern with east and west Africa showing remarkable declines in recent years, but southern Africa remains the epicenter of the pandemic.

“The reason behind this is circumcision,” says David Wilson, senior monitoring and evaluation specialist at the World Bank.

Male circumcision can help reduce the risk of infection. It is rare in southern Africa, mixed in east Africa and almost uniform in western Africa, Wilson says.

Southern Africa has also not done as well as eastern Africa in overcoming the stigma surrounding HIV, he says.

Increasing access to life-saving antiretroviral drugs (ARVs) is good news for many in Africa, but some experts caution the pandemic is in danger of being viewed as chronic but manageable.

“Treatment has made us complacent and so what we need to do is redouble prevention efforts and make people aware treatment is only a partial solution,” Wilson says.

In Muhanga, where Uwitije and her family try to make ends meet, Uwitije says she would be dead already without her ARVs.

But she does not want to talk about her health of her teenage daughter, the mother of her grandchild.

“Don’t ask me anything about her status,” Uwitije says, tears rolling down her cheeks. “I don’t want to say anything.”