Africa, Development & Aid, Headlines, Health

HEALTH: Taxi Drivers Becoming Agents of Change in AIDS-Ridden Rwanda

Evelyn Kiapi Matsamura

KAMPALA, Mar 20 2004 (IPS) - Transporters and taxi drivers from Rwanda are learning how to fight HIV/AIDS from their counterparts in neighbouring Uganda.

A delegation of eight members from the Association De Transport En Common (ATRACO) in Rwanda visited the Ugandan capital, Kampala, on Mar. 15-18 to learn more on how to fight the disease.

While in Kampala, the Uganda Transporters and Drivers Association (UTODA) arranged a meeting with ‘The AIDS Support Organisation’ (TASO) which helps people living with HIV/AIDS.

At TASO, the transporters met people living with HIV/AIDS who openly gave them testimonies as well as advice on accepting the disease and living positively after infection. The Rwandans were promised a free counselling training at TASO.

Sylvain Nsabimana, ATRACO Secretary General who led the delegation to Uganda, said their main interest was to learn about HIV/AIDS and how Uganda is fighting it.

"We came in to see what Uganda is doing in the fight against HIV/AIDS. We want to know what programmes their drivers are involved in. This disease was first recognised in Uganda, but today, the prevalence is going down here," Nsabimana said.

"We have also learnt that HIV/AIDS is not a taboo anymore in this country. People come out and openly declare their status. This is not the same in Rwanda where people hide it. In Uganda, people testify and tell you how long they have been infected," he told IPS.

Uganda’s HIV/AIDS prevalence rates have fallen from 30 percent in the late 1980s to 6 percent today. In recognition for his active role in the fight against the disease, President Yoweri Museveni has received three international awards.

Since it was formed in 2000, ATRACO has been involved in condom and brochure distributions, as well as in screening video clips and on avoiding HIV/AIDS. The group’s offices are situated in taxi parks all over Rwanda and access is free to all. ATRACO has over 7,000 members, including taxi drivers, their assistants as well as their families.

"The drivers decided to embark on this programme because they realised that they’re always on the move. Sometimes they’re gone from home for days. These drivers are young, and many of them are teenagers. So they’re vulnerable to HIV/AIDS," Nsabimana said.

He believes the drivers can help in spreading the HIV/AIDS message because they travel a lot around the country and meet people. "They can also easily get infected or infect others with HIV/AIDS due to their mobility," Nsabimana said.

In Rwanda, drivers are encouraged to carry condoms in their taxis and distribute them to passengers on a daily basis, he said.

According to UNAIDS, Rwanda, with a population of 7.9 million, is one of the nine African countries most severely affected by the HIV/AIDS epidemic with an overall HIV prevalence rate of 11-13 percent. About 500,000 Rwandans are estimated to be living with HIV/AIDS. Of these, roughly 50 percent are women and about 13 percent are children under 15 years. Young people (under 20 years) comprise 60 percent of the country’s population.

Nsabimana says condoms are distributed without discrimination, including to children and elderly people of 60 years old.

"The HIV/AIDS message is sent out using all available means, including the television. Anybody can access it. Whoever wants to listen to the message is welcome. We cannot leave any age group out. Even three year-olds need to know about HIV/AIDS," he said.

In a country which is still recovering from the 1994 genocide, which left up to a million people dead, HIV/AIDS is now one of the leading causes of death there. According to the Rwandan Ministry of Health, the leading causes of the AIDS pandemic include economic hardships, civil strive, the practice of multiple sex partners, availability of commercial sex and resistance to talking about sex and condom use.

"With a staggering one-third of households in Rwanda headed by females, the epidemic is exerting a disproportionate impact on women who are economically, socially and sexually vulnerable," says a recent report on HIV/AIDS in Rwanda.

By 2005, the report estimates that the death rate in Rwanda will be 40 percent higher due to HIV/AIDS than it was in 1990 and life expectancy will drop to 32 years by 2010.

While there is a high knowledge level of HIV/AIDS among the population, there is a low condom use, according to a ‘Behavioural Surveillance Survey’ conducted in Rwanda last year. In the transport sector for instance, over 92 percent of drivers were aware of means of HIV/AIDS prevention, but only with occasional use of condoms.

According to the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), AIDS has orphaned one million children in Rwanda. UNICEF estimates that 5,500-7,000 children are born to HIV-infected mothers every year.

Rita Nyirahabimana, one of the ATRACO members, says Rwanda’s HIV/AIDS programme helps not only those who are infected but also their families, particularly orphans and widows.

Rwanda is running a programme to prevent mother-to-child transmission in a number of hospitals. But despite these efforts, UNAIDS says by 2015, AIDS is expected to increase the country’s already high infant mortality rate by 10 percent.

UTODA’s national chairman John W. Ndyomugyenyi welcomed ATRACO and praised their initiative in the fight against HIV/AIDS, including the stocking of condoms in first aid boxes in taxis.

"The transport industry involves so many people. With it, one can carry the virus from Kabale (southern Uganda) and disseminate it in Arua (northern Uganda). That is why drivers need to be sensitised.

Ndyomugyenyi said, "We are targeting road safety and HIV/AIDS. Those two are national issues and they are important."

In Uganda, border points and stopovers have reported high incidences of HIV/AIDS infections. Business activity thrives in these small towns and trading centres with the selling of alcohol in bars as well as commercial sex.

Rwanda’s transporters, who have realised their vulnerability, intend to make the trips regular in order to exchange ideas with their Ugandan counterparts. They also hope to target all their counterparts in the Great Lakes Region – which along with Uganda comprises Tanzania, Rwanda, Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) – with the HIV/AIDS message.

Maybe their effort could save millions of lives that would have been lost to HIV/AIDS.

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