The first lady of Rwanda, Jeannette Kagame, is in Geneva seeking support from United Nations agencies for an alliance formed by African first ladies to combat HIV and AIDS. Ms. Kagame and the U.N. agencies are working out the details of specific projects to fight a disease that is devastating many African countries.

Last May, 18 first ladies from sub-Saharan Africa signed a declaration committing them to combating HIV/AIDS, which has hit harder in sub-Saharan Africa than in any other region of the world.

The United Nations estimates more than 28 million Africans are infected with the disease and 2.3 million of them have died of it. Jeannette Kagame, wife of Rwandan President Paul Kagame, says Africa's first ladies can do a great deal to prevent the disease's spread and to ease the pain of those who have it.

"We feel that we are a group that, on its own, can play a big role because we are all aware that we have got a big audience and that we could talk for those who do not have the voice," said Ms. Kagame.

Ms. Kagame stressed that the problem is so huge that a formal organization is needed to address and coordinate activities that can make an impact on HIV/AIDS. The first lady is meeting in Geneva with heads of U.N. organizations to work on projects for combating AIDS. The director of the U.N.'s global program on AIDS says it is important to remember that AIDS affects far more than those who have it.

"AIDS is really a family disease," explains Peter Piot. "AIDS is a community problem. To approach mother-to-child transmission in a way that goes far beyond giving a few drugs to the mother and then the job is finished. We have the children who are ill, the orphans. The mother needs treatment and the longer the mother lives, the less orphans there will be."

A study done in 1997 found that 11 percent of the Rwandan population, or 400,000 people, had the disease. Ms. Kagame believes the figure is twice as high now. She says the Rwandan genocide of 1994, in which an estimated 800,000 people were killed, played a role in accelerating the spread of AIDS.

"Among the weapons used during the genocide was also the rape. As if rape was not enough, they would make sure that infected people are raping these women," explained Ms. Kagame.

Ms. Kagame says she and the other first ladies of Africa are determined to play a leading role in mobilizing the women of Africa to protect themselves, their families and their communities from the scourge of HIV/AIDS.