Fighting Torture and Violence in Rwanda

As Senior Coordinator of PHR's Health Action AIDS East Africa Program, I get frequent opportunities to be in the field and connect with amazing human rights activists from the region. Last week in Kigali, Rwanda, I met with two incredible young doctors – Dr. Davis Kashake Karengya and Dr. Charles Ntare – who have devoted their careers to human rights advocacy, with a specific focus on ending violence and torture in Rwanda.

Rwanda’s recent history of violence is well known. As members of the pioneer class of medical students after the 1994 genocide that killed over 800,000 Rwandans, Davis and Charles wanted to be part of rebuilding and healing their community in a way that reached beyond the provision of medical services. After attending a three-week training on human rights, Dr. Karengya returned to the medical school to share what he had learned while networking with anti-torture advocates from across Africa with his classmates. In these meetings, the students envisioned a collaboration between medical students, doctors, lawyers, and human rights activists to address the continuing psychological and physical burden of torture and violence in Rwanda.

On September 5, 1999, just over five years after the genocide, Le Forum des Activistes contre la Torture et la Violence (Forum for Activists against Torture and Violence) – also known as FACT Rwanda – was born. The road has not been easy for FACT and its co-founders. Of the 60 doctors, lawyers, and human rights activists that founded FACT, only about half remain engaged. Some left Rwanda for better professional opportunities abroad, some found the struggle of advocating for human rights too difficult to sustain, and still others were forced to leave the country during times when the climate for human rights activists in Rwanda was unfriendly.

Davis and Charles, who both hold staff positions within the organization, have remained committed to building and growing the organization. In its 10 years of existence, FACT has taken on crucial issues others were unwilling to address – the government’s use of torture and its refusal to ratify the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, the psychosocial and physical rehabilitation of torture survivors across the region, advocacy to promote the rights of prisoners, and education about torture to the Rwanda National Police.

Today, FACT works to both prevent torture and violence through education and advocacy and to rehabilitate victims of torture and violence through its Rehabilitation Centre located in Kigali. With a network of counselors, psychologists, lawyers and medical doctors, FACT provides a full range of rehabilitation services to survivors who otherwise would have no place to turn. Through their outreach services they are able to follow-up with their clients and link them to additional social support networks within their communities. On the prevention side, FACT has also started human rights clubs in schools, local police and defense offices, and prisons in order to make sure that all Rwandans understand and embrace their fundamental human rights.

“One of our biggest successes has been in the area of bringing to light the issue of torture in Rwanda,” Davis told me from their Rehabilitation Centre in Kigali. “No one wanted to believe that torture was still happening in Rwanda. After years of advocacy and pressure, the Government of Rwanda ratified the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment just last year.”

“Rwanda has a very young population . . . we like to say that we are being ‘born-again,’” said Charles. “The prevention work that we are doing in schools by starting human rights clubs and educating young people has been pivotal in the transformation and growth of Rwanda. These are our future leaders, and we are ensuring that they understand the concept and the importance of human rights.”

The resources are never enough. FACT finds that their funders are more interested in prevention than in rehabilitation, which has limited the growth of the Rehabilitation Centre and the number of clients they are able to serve each month. And although the founders of FACT recognize that prevention is crucial, the medical and psychosocial support that the center provides to victims of violence and torture fills a huge void in a region where mental health and social support services are severely limited. Charles and Davis keep working to educate potential funders about the immense needs of survivors of torture and hope that their vision of rehabilitation centers in at least five provinces throughout Rwanda will soon be realized.

I am in Rwanda working with the Rwanda Medical Association on promoting a stronger health sector response to sexual and gender-based violence in the country, and the prevention and treatment services that organizations like FACT provide to victims of violence are an essential piece of this puzzle. Health providers in public health facilities in Rwanda (and elsewhere in Sub-Saharan Africa) have limited access to wrap-around services for their patients, yet these referrals and linkages are one of the key elements of a comprehensive response to violence. Knowing that they can refer to an organization like FACT makes health professionals more willing to identify and assist victims of violence.

As they approach the 10 year anniversary of founding of FACT Rwanda, Davis, Charles and the many other medical doctors, lawyers, and human rights advocates who had a vision of ending torture and violence in Rwanda should be proud of how far they have come. The journey is not finished, but the progress is inspiring.

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