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Rwanda: ICRC combats HIV/AIDS in prisons

01-12-2005 Feature

The ICRC, which frequently visits prisons in Rwanda to check on the conditions of detention, has just completed an awareness-raising campaign on HIV/AIDS for some 36,000 detainees. According to Jean-Paul Tuyisenge, who works at the ICRC delegation in Kigali, the results are encouraging.

Since the 1994 genocide, the ICRC has endeavoured to improve life in Rwandan prisons, where overcrowding and a lack of resources had led to appalling conditions. As a result, the most basic needs of the detainees in terms of food, water, medical care and hygiene have largely been met.

Yet the problem of HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), to which detainees are particularly exposed, has long been overlooked in Rwandan prisons by organizations specializing in this field.

In 2002, with the problem growing acute, the ICRC and the non-governmental organization Society for Women and AIDS in Africa (SWAA), launched a study on the attitudes and practices of detainees at the Nsinda prison in eastern Rwanda.

On the basis of its findings, a training programme was set up the following year for 130 detainees. The trainees in turn taught some 13,000 fellow detainees what they had learned about the disease and the dangers of high-risk behaviour. The programme, which involved two awareness-raising sessions per week, proved highly successful.

From June 2004 to August 2005, in cooperation with SWAA and Penal Reform International, the ICRC extended the programme to four more prisons in the country – Kibungo, Rilima, Gitarama et Gisovu – holding altogether over 23,000 detainees. As a result, 300 detainees received intensive training over a period of five days on the prevention of HIV/AIDS and other STDs.

According to a survey carried out by the ICRC and SWAA, at least 85 per cent of the prison population covered by the programme received sufficient relevant information on the means of transmissi on and prevention of HIV/AIDS and other STDs.

Diana Cousseau, an ICRC health delegate in charge of the programme, confirmed that the results were encouraging: " Detainees have changed their behaviour and taken account of basic advice, such as the need to disinfect sharp instruments before using them. Requests for testing have also increased and there is less stigma attached to HIV/AIDS carriers. "

In August 2005, the ICRC decided to turn over the programme to the Rwanda National Commission to Combat AIDS after learning that the latter was to include the prison population in its strategic national plan. As the coordinating body for all issues relating to HIV/AIDS, the Commission will run the programme in partnership with non-governmental organizations specializing in this field. 

Although it is no longer in charge of the awareness-raising programme, the ICRC is represented on the Commission's steering committee and will continue to pay close attention to the problem of HIV/AIDS in prisons.