Odette Kayirere's life was turned upside down when a militia captured and killed her husband during Rwanda's 1994 genocide.
One year later, Kayirere and 50 other widows of the genocide started AVEGA Agahozo, an association that helps female genocide survivors rebuild their lives by overcoming the trauma of rape, losing loved ones and being a witness to gruesome killings.
She said Tuesday that the group can now expand its reach with a $500,000 cash prize awarded in June by an American foundation. AVEGA Agahozo now provides services across the country and includes among its members more than 20,000 widows and more than 71,000 dependents and orphans.
Kayirere said many women were struggling to cope with life after seeing horrific situations during the genocide like their children or husbands being killed. Some of the women were raped and are now HIV positive, she said.
"Many of them have been traumatized and many of them can't overcome their grief and they will forever be traumatized and sick," she said. Kayirere said her organization helps rape victims receive medical treatment and provides counseling. The group also offers education, housing and training to equip the women with skills to start income generating activities.
Kayirere said that helping others has helped her move forward.
"This is how I try to manage the trauma," she said.
At least 500,000 ethnic Tutsis and moderate Hutus were slaughtered during Rwanda's 100-day genocide in 1994.
Between 250,000 and 500,000 women were estimated to have been raped, according to a statement issued by the Peter and Patricia Gruber Foundation, which granted the award. It said genocide widows also outnumber widowers 10 to one.
Patricia Gruber, one of the founders of the Gruber Foundation, said in a statement in June that AVEGA Agahozo deserves the award.
"These women not only help one another, they have reached out to orphans of the genocide, to parents who lost children, to the elderly and disabled, and in short have improved life for all of Rwanda and set an example for the rest of the world," she said.
The Peter and Patricia Gruber Foundation is a U.S.-based private philanthropic organization which honors educational excellence, social justice and scientific achievements. The foundation gives $500,000 cash awards annually on advances in cosmology, genetics and neuroscience, justice and women's rights.