Yoga vs Rape… and HIV… in Rwanda …and beyond

Project Air: Yoga Helps HIV-Positive Rape Victims In Rwanda


“When I finished, a young woman put out her hand and said, ‘You know, that’s for children, and we have already reached old age. We are sick.'” The woman was 28.

So began the first class offered by Project Air, an initiative that uses yoga to help over 400 HIV-positive Rwandan women and their families cope with the trauma they endured when an estimated 800,000 Rwandans were killed in only 100 days — and countless women were raped — as the Hutu majority tribe tried to wipe out the Tutsi minority. Even after the violation, mutilation and murder were over and the machetes were sheathed, the bodies and minds of the Rwandan women Project Air serves remained battlefields. While their immune systems struggled to fight even the most common illnesses, their minds were warding off traumatic flashbacks of war.

Summerbell wasn’t surprised by her students’ early skepticism. In fact, when the non-profit Women’s Equity in Access to Care and Treatment first approached Summerbell in 2007 to helm the project, she declined.

“I thought that it was silly and the last thing these women would probably need.” said Summerbell, who grew up in Tanzania, where she witnessed what she describes as Westerners’ attempts to institute ineffective foreign practices in African culture.

But when Summerbell, and then her students, decided to give the project a try — despite the students’ physical and emotional trauma and the fact that women’s participation in physical activities of this nature is taboo in Rwanda — they found the results were both immediate and profound.

“After the third lesson, a shy woman came up to me, took my hands and said that she had slept for the first time in the 14 years since the genocide,” Summerbell said. “She wasn’t alone. Women will tell you that before yoga, they were crippled with aches and pains; they felt old. Now they crave yoga because when they feel physically stronger, they feel more confident and optimistic.”

Given these positive results, what began as a three-month experiment is now in its fourth year. It is the first yoga initiative to be endorsed by the United Nations and is the only yoga project to be partnered with UNICEF. Organizers are looking to expand the yoga program to other warring and post-conflict countries.


One comment on “Yoga vs Rape… and HIV… in Rwanda …and beyond

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  1. Thanks for sharing this. I wonder how things go over time with yoga being done to counter that much trauma. Of course, it doesn’t surprise me that it presents as a miracle cure and even if things don’t go so easily past the point of the early miraculousness, just giving someone a good nights sleep for once warrants giving it a shot. I just hope the yoga teachers realize that after helping someone reawaken their optimism, yoga keeps going and that part will be challenging.

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