In Rwanda, education and health programmes provide children with a better start in life

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KIGALI, Rwanda, 7 April 2011 – Rwanda faces a number of issues, from poor sanitation and high HIV rates to a large percentage of orphaned children. UNICEF and partners are tackling these challenges through a series of national and local initiatives.

Diverse programmes

In order to improve access to safe water and sanitation, the WASH project – funded by UNICEF and the Governments of the Netherlands and Rwanda – is constructing water facilities in local communities, health centres and primary schools. About 55 per cent of Rwanda’s population has no proper sanitation. The initiative aims to provide 800,000 people with access to safe water by 2013.

“Almost 80 per cent of all diseases that affect Rwandans are linked to water-borne causes,” said Guy Mbayo, UNICEF Rwanda Chief of Water and Sanitation. Diarrhoea is the second most common cause of death among children under the age of five.

The Government of Rwanda is also taking a very aggressive stance in preventing, caring and treating people living with HIV. Statistics estimate that more than 170,000 people in the country are living with the disease. With UNICEF support, Rwanda has been able to model a comprehensive approach to Prevention of Mother to Child Transmission (PMTCT) in seven health centres around the country.

One example is the Muhura Health Centre in eastern Rwanda. It has been a decade since a joint PMTCT programme was introduced here. The results have been impressive.

“When the program started 10 years ago, it was mostly women who were conscious about spreading HIV to their unborn children. Now the trend has changed and men are also concerned,” explains Marie Clair Uwimana, a health worker at the clinic.

She attributes the change to a family-based approach where partners are helped to understand the importance of knowing their HIV status along with other important issues such as family planning, breastfeeding, nutrition and immunisation.

Treatment for HIV orphans

After the genocide in 1994, Rwanda had one of the highest percentages of orphans in the world. Today, while many of the orphans who have lost one or both parents to AIDS or other causes have grown up, there are still an estimated 22,000 children who live with HIV.

Uyisenga n’Imanzi is a local UNICEF-supported non-governmental organization that addresses the special needs of children orphaned by the genocide, AIDS, and other causes. It provides medical, economic and educational support.

Thanks to combined efforts of the government and international partners such as UNICEF, more and more children who require care, treatment and support – whether or not they are living with HIV themselves or are just affected by it – are receiving help and living positively.

Early childhood development

Recognizing the importance of early childhood development (ECD), Rwanda has been establishing facilities such as the Nyange Early Childhood Centre in the northern district of Musanze. Here, children have a chance to play, sing and socialize – all important elements of healthy early childhood development.

Adequate stimulation and nutrition are essential for brain development during the first three years of life, and ECD services can make young children more socially and emotionally healthy. International economists have ranked such services as one of the most highly effective social and economic investments a government can make.

“When we started this centre, it was a far-fetched dream,” said Eugene Ndagijimana, Parent Association President, “but now parents understand that exposing children to early stimulation activities, such as play, singing and even looking or touching a book, helps them acquire all fundamental life skills to become a creative and productive adult.”

By supporting the adoption and implementation of early childhood development policies by the Government of Rwanda, UNICEF continues to help centres like Nyange provide children with the nurturing environment and stimulation they need.