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Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights

Deogratias Niyizonkiza: Where There is Health There is Hope


Deo attends a severely malnourished child on a home visit in Kigutu

Deo Niyizonkiza was one of two refugees honored at the Women’s Refugee Commission 2010 Voices of Courage Awards held Thursday, May 6 in New York City. In the post below, Deo tells us about his organization Village Health Works and why it is important to provide health care to refugee women and children.

My home is Burundi, a country that has for years been named one of the poorest in the world. And yet despite living with such a seemingly hopeless statistic, my mother taught me to never see myself as poor. Even when we had no food to eat, she told me to be proud of who I was and where I came from. My mother left Burundi for the first time two weeks ago to watch me receive the 2010 Voices of Courage Award from the Women's Refugee Commission in New York City. I was so thankful to have the opportunity to accept this award in her honor. Like so many women in Burundi, my mother has faced a lifetime of hardship. Years of civil war have left Burundi’s communities ravaged by poverty and violence. Without access to healthcare, my mother had no other choice but to give birth to her children at home, on a mud floor, with no help from a midwife or physician and no painkillers. I would sit with her while she gave birth to my brothers and sisters and watch her cut the umbilical cord with no assistance. In fact, only 25% of births in Burundi are attended by skilled health care providers. As a result, a Burundian woman has a one-in-nine lifetime risk of dying in childbirth.

Women are always more vulnerable to the burdens of war—so much more so than the men responsible for the conflicts’ start. Many lost their husbands during the war and are now left homeless, landless and shunned from society as widows. Others have been repeatedly gang-raped and face HIV infection, stigma, blame and humiliation as a result. No human being should be subjected to such suffering.

I founded Village Health Works on the principle that quality, compassionate health care is a human right that everyone is entitled to regardless of their sex or their ability to pay. The clinic’s founding principles ensure that women are able to make decisions that determine their own health and well-being. The strength and success of the clinic is found in the dozens of women from the community who work and volunteer there. It is because of them that we have been able to provide health services to more than 28,000 patients – many of whom are refugees from the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Tanzania – since the clinic opened in December 2007.

I am most proud of the clinic when I hear of brave women like Beatrice. Beatrice is one of the many Burundian refugees who returned from Tanzania after spending years in a refugee camp. After walking for five days, Beatrice arrived at our clinic so frail and weak from the tuberculosis and HIV in her body that she could barely walk. The doctors at the clinic quickly gave her medications, food and supplements. What’s amazing to me is that even in the face of death and pain, Beatrice remained hopeful, determined to live to raise and support her children. I've heard that Beatrice is doing well now, having regained her strength – so much so that she is eager to return to Tanzania to show her friends how strong and healthy she has become. At Village Health Works, we want to give every woman the chance to be strong and healthy so that they can support their families and live life without the pain and agony of treatable illnesses. We want to make sure that women in Burundi do not have to endure the dangers of childbirth alone as my mother did.

Every woman should have access to health care and have the right to live a healthy life. I believe that where there is health, there is hope.

Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights