Holistic Health: Yoga Helps Heal Rwandan Women and Children

2/08/2011 - An innovative new mental health aid project in Rwanda is helping rape survivors, genocide survivors and HIV-affected populations in Rwanda through the healing practice of yoga.

With the help of yoga instructors, hundreds of HIV-positive rape survivors and AIDS orphans in Rwanda are learning to deal with their demons, reports Laura Stampler for the Huffington Post.

The women, who began learning Ashtanga yoga four years ago, are not only rape survivors but survivors of the 1994 genocide, in which almost 800,000 people lost their lives. During the genocide, rape was used extensively as a weapon of war and extermination against the Tutsi ethnic group by Hutu extremists.

Deirdre Summerbell, who is 55, started teaching yoga with Project Air, an organization that focuses on helping HIV-positive women and their children cope with the consequences of the devastating sexual violence. Project Air’s initiatives are conducted in collaboration with WE-ACTx.

Now endorsed and partnered with the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), Project Air has successfully reached thousands of women and children. The organization has now expanded its operations into the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, where it will work with medical facilities.

Project Air also extends its services to children, some 300-350 of whom are current beneficiaries. Most of these children are orphans. According to information by UNICEF, Rwanda is home to 130,000 AIDS orphans who make up 19 per cent of the total number of orphans in the country (690,000). The genocide is at the root of the country's orphan crisis and the large number of child-headed households.

Recognizing that orphans can face extraordinary stigma – even from their own families – prompted Project Air into action. As such, the organization has tried to make vulnerable young girls the focus of the Ashtanga programme. But, in order to truly affect positive changes about the role of women, building the confidence of women alone was not enough. The organization soon adopted a more gender-comprehensive approach, involving men its programmes to help them understand the need for changes in their mentalities.

Though, at first, even Summerbell was sceptical about the initiative.

“I thought that it was silly and the last thing these women would probably need,” she told the Post, worried about seemingly neo-colonial implications of using infusing yoga into traditional African culture.

But, the project is an innovative part of the mental health response to the post-genocide environment and the AIDS pandemic. While anti-retroviral medications and treatment for opportunistic infections can help heal the bodies of these women who are living with HIV, yoga can help heal their minds.

The testimonies are clear. Project Air gets results. Women are reported to be sleeping better, feeling stronger and have growing confidence and optimism.

About 2.9 per cent of the adult population in Rwanda is HIV positive, as of 2009. Another 22,000 children under the age of 15 are also living with HIV or AIDS.  However, among women, as is the case in many other sub-Saharan African countries, prevalence among women is higher. Female HIV prevalence may be as high as 10 per cent among Rwandan women. The majority of these women likely contracted the disease during the genocide.