In 1994, during the genocide in Rwanda, close to one million people were killed and thousands of women and girls sexually assaulted. Many were left for dead. About 250,000 rape victims are thought to have survived. Thousands of them had been infected with HIV, as were many of their children born after the genocide. While they escaped, most of their family members, friends, colleagues, and neighbors did not. They are deeply scarred by what they endured, witnessed and lost.
Rwanda Gift for Life (RGFL) was established in 2005 to respond to the ongoing hardships and trauma suffered by genocide rape victims who continue to live with the trauma of the past, struggle to care for their families while living with, and slowly dying of, AIDS.
Rwanda Gift for Life was an initiative of African Rights, an international human rights NGO working in Rwanda following the publication of their report, Rwanda: Broken Bodies, Torn Spirits, Living with Genocide, Rape and HIV/AIDS which describes the devastation and continuing trauma experienced by women who were raped during the genocide and were infected by HIV. The report had been commissioned by UNIFEM. Rakiya Omaar, director of African Rights, and Stephanie Urdang, the UNIFEM advisor on Gender and HIV/AIDS, felt they could not simply turn away when the bleak situation of the lives of the women in the study was so evident. It was out of this concern that the project materialized. It was made possible because at that time (2004/2005) the Rwandan government began to provide free anti-retrovirals to all those living with AIDS who needed them and could not afford the cost. Many of the women in the project, who live in Butare, the second largest town in Rwanda, were known to Sister Spéciose, a nurse and trauma counselor at Butare University Hospital. The women were in such poor physical and emotional state that she felt their lives were at risk. Although the women did not know each other, they soon came together as a close knit group, formed an association and have provided the kind of support to each other that they had lost when their family members were killed.
For the first years of the project, participants were given financial, practical and moral support in order to regain their physical and emotional health. Once this was achieved, the project moved on to address the critical need for economically viable income-generating projects, training and mentoring to enable the women to set up their own small business enterprises.