Feature story

From isolation to integration: Rwandan project transforms women’s lives

24 March 2011

Joy Ndugutse, co-founder of Gahaya Links, showed UNAIDS Executive Director Michel Sidibé a selection of handicrafts produced by women in Rwanda for the North American market.

In 2004, two sisters in Rwanda started a “trade-not-aid” initiative that produces high-end handicrafts. From a humble beginning with just 20 artisans in the remote village of Gitarama, Gahaya Links has since expanded its network to more than 5000 weavers nation-wide.

Most of the employees at Gahaya Links are women who lost husbands and children in the 1994 Rwandan genocide. Many are HIV-positive. The income earned through their work ensures they can provide food, education, and healthcare for their families.

“This is development in practice,” said UNAIDS Executive Director Michel Sidibé during a visit to the Gahaya Links head office in Kigali on Tuesday. “It is a success story for restoring the dignity of people living with HIV,” he added. In a guided tour of the project, Mr Sidibé saw first-hand the range of handicrafts on offer, including brightly-coloured woven baskets and crocheted glass-beaded necklaces.

Gahaya Links organizes sessions on HIV prevention for its employees and teams with national partners and health centres to ensure that women have access to antiretroviral treatment and care. The programme fosters an environment of support, cooperation and mutual trust for people living with HIV.

Joy Ndugutse, co-founder of Gahaya Links, told Mr Sidibé that the project transforms the lives of women living with HIV. “These women are now stronger and more confident,” she said, adding that many others could benefit from such support.

Gahaya Links collaborates closely with Same Sky, a New York-based company founded by social entrepreneur Francine Le Frak that markets the Rwandan handicrafts for a North American market. Proceeds are reinvested into expanding the business to other world regions and employing more women artisans.

PrePex: A potential new tool for HIV prevention

While in Kigali, Mr Sidibé visited the Nyamata hospital, a public facility serving a population of approximately 300 000 people. The hospital was chosen as a site for a safety study of a new, non-surgical method of male circumcision called “PrePex.”

“The most interesting thing about PrePex is that it doesn’t require going to the operating theatre,” said Dr. Agnes Binagwaho Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Health of Rwanda. “It can be done from any clean environment. It is also cost-effective and does not require highly trained staff—any well-trained person can do it,” she added.

Studies have shown that adult male circumcision reduces the risk of HIV transmission from women to men by about 60%. Existing techniques for male circumcision require highly trained health professionals and surgical settings.

During his tour of the hospital, Mr Sidibé commended health authorities in Rwanda for their work on this groundbreaking study. “PrePex marks a revolution in the framework of accelerating HIV prevention,” he said. If larger studies confirm that PrePex is safe and effective, PrePex could be approved as a medical device that would triple the number of male circumcisions that health facilities conduct daily.