In Kigoma, people gather in small bars to enjoy a cup of ikivuguto, a traditional drink of fermented milk, and enjoy a light conversation with neighbors and friends. Here, in the hilly south of Rwanda, the pace of life is slower, and agricultural production keeps everyone’s work closely tied to the seasons.
Appolinarie comes from Kigoma. Her family is here, and all her friends. But you won’t see her sitting with the others chatting over a cup of ikivuguto. She’s come a long way, and battled so much to rise above what life had served her. Today, she’s focused on the future and busy tending to her business.
A neighbor assaulted and raped Appolinarie when she was only 17 years old. The incident left her pregnant and HIV positive. In the midst of childhood stolen, Appolinarie had to grapple with the burden of both a terrible disease and an unwanted pregnancy, stark reminders of the heinous act perpetrated against her. The weight of societal stigma compounded her suffering, and isolated her from the support and understanding she needed. She endured the anguish of judgment and discrimination, which made her journey towards healing and recovery an uphill battle. She dropped out of school.
“I was hopeless, lonely, and very ashamed of being financially dependent on my mother,” recalls Appolinarie. Young survivors like her don’t have much support, yet they need it so much in order to find solace, justice and hope.
Thanks to PEPFAR, USAID supports a program in Rwanda that provides a comprehensive set of services for orphans and vulnerable children, including adolescent girls who find themselves in situations similar to that of Appolinarie. In her area this program is implemented by ACHIEVE, which stands for Adolescents and Children HIV Incidence Reduction, Empowerment and Virus Elimination. Once Appolinarie joined the program, things started looking up for her.
ACHIEVE assigned her a volunteer case manager who worked closely with Appolinarie to design an entire plan of services for her. It included access to appropriate legal authorities where she could report her abuser, counseling sessions and prenatal healthcare visits. Appolinarie was also put on medication that suppresses HIV and helps her give birth to an HIV-free baby. Her case manager visits her at home twice a month to ensure she continues taking medication and going for prenatal visits. At that time, the case manager also educates Appolinarie and her family on reproductive health and rights, life skills, positive parenting, and income-generating opportunities. To help her with self-acceptance as she processes her trauma, Appolinarie receives psychological support through this program.
“Since I joined, I was able to reconnect with life and learn from other girls who went through difficulties of life and chose to defy them,” says Appolinarie. Thanks to the education her family received through the program, they were able to accept Appolinarie’s reality and support her healing and growth.
Empowered by her case manager and a supportive community, Appolinarie decided to take advantage of another part of the program called Ejo Heza Rubyiruko (A Bright Future for Youth) that provides support in accessing finance to start a small business. She learned about financial literacy and started working towards financial independence.
“Ejo Heza Rubyiruko is part of the program under ACHIEVE. They created a safe space for adolescents to build confidence, and a forum where we can discuss issues that are important to us,” explains Appolinarie. She saved up some money and used her new knowledge and skills to start a business: raising animals to sell for meat. With support, Appolinarie was able to overcome obstacles and create a meaningful change in her life.
Too often young girls and women face the unimaginable trauma of sexual violence and its devastating consequences. Such programs provide them with health services, counseling and skills they need in order to overcome the trauma, heal and build a better future.
Appolinarie’s story is a beacon of inspiration, showing the potential and capabilities of a young, determined person who has the right kind of support.
About the program: ACHIEVE Rwanda seeks to control the HIV epidemic among pregnant and breastfeeding women, adolescents, infants, and children. To do this, ACHIEVE provides technical assistance to strengthen social welfare systems and supports capacity development for local partners to sustain services at the local level. ACHIEVE is a global mechanism implemented by Pact, in partnership with Jhpiego, Palladium, No Means No Worldwide, and WI-HER.