In a recent article in The New Times, it was reported that a study commissioned by the Ministry of Youth and ICT and carried out by a team of researchers from Kigali Health Institute found out that "52.5 per cent of youth in Rwanda have at least once taken drugs, and 92.7 per cent of that population group kept on consuming them".
This would imply that 48.66 per cent of all Rwandan youth consume drugs. Another misleading element in the article is the reference to trafficking, which was not covered by the said report. Considered out of their proper context, these numbers would undoubtedly be alarming.
To put things in perspective, the public needs to know that the research considered as "drug" both legal and illegal substances. Out of the 52.5 per cent reported as consuming drugs, the same research further states that about only 5 per cent have ever tried an illegal substance mainly cannabis whose lifetime prevalence stood at 4.4 per cent and 2.54 per cent reported problems of dependence on it. The other most prevalent illegal drugs are illicit brews such as Kanyanga, solvents (glue) and local brews prepared from sorghum, sugar, etc. collectively responsible for about 1 per cent of reported cases of drug use. These findings point out to the relatively high level use of alcohol (34 per cent) and tobacco (8.5 per cent) among the youth (14 - 35 years of age).
What is most important, is to note that the commissioning of the report was by itself an acknowledgment that drug abuse among the youth was indeed a serious problem that deserves policy attention and action which wouldn't be based on mere anecdotic evidence. The study informed and strengthened a number of on-going programmes by the Ministry and its public and non-profit stakeholders to tackle the issue of drug abuse and its consequences on the youth. Most importantly, it justified on-going policy and regulatory reviews, geared towards making Rwanda a drug-free country.
The campaign for drug eradication was launched by Her Excellency the First Lady Jeanette Kagame in December 2011. In response to her call, the Ministry of Youth and ICT initiated the "Neighbour's eye" (Ijisho ry'umuturanyi) which aims at pushing the campaign to the village level (umudugudu). The programme is a partnership between MYICT (Ministry of Youth and ICT), Imbuto Foundation, the National Police, the Ministry of Local Government, Faith-based organisations and a number of other public and non-for-profit stakeholders. To-date, the campaign has established anti-drugs committees in all the14, 813 villages of Rwanda.
Iwawa Rehabilitation and Skills Training Centre is another home-grown solution to assist those who have fallen victims of drug addiction leading to petty crime. So far the programme rehabilitated and graduated 2,056 young men in a range of vocational skills that include carpentry, construction, commercial farming and tailoring. Today, the centre hosts 1,936 youth. The programme has achieved remarkable success whereby more than 90 per cent of graduates were successfully reintegrated back into their communities as responsible and productive citizens.
However, to win the battle against alcohol, tobacco and illicit drug use among young Rwandans, it will take much more than policy, government backed programmes and law enforcement. There has to be a mind-set change towards the traditional and cultural value of these substances. Parents, educators and communities need to play a leading role by protecting children against exposure to these substances at a tender age.
The writer is the Minister of Youth and ICT of the Republic of Rwanda.