Irish missionary sisters combat AIDS in Africa

Irish missionary sisters combat AIDS in Africa

Two Irish missionaries, Srs Kay Lawlor and Miriam Duggan, have been credited with reducing the AIDS epidemic in Uganda and other African countries. Sr Duggan spoke recently about her work promoting chastity to Cian Molloy of 'The Irish Catholic'.

Sr Miriam Duggan and Sr Kay Lawlor are running a major abstinence-based program in Uganda called Youth Alive. Sr Duggan is a member of the Franciscan Missionaries for Africa and Sr Kay Lawlor is a member of the Medical Missionaries of Mary.

News of the program's success in reducing the incidence of AIDS has spread beyond the borders of Uganda to other parts of Africa. It is credited with helping to reduce the prevalence rate for HIV in Uganda from 28.9 per cent to 9.8 per cent.

To date, all attempts to curb the spread of AIDS have failed, including the constant promotion of condom- use. One reason may be that there has been little attempt made to address the underlying behaviour which most often leads to AIDS, namely sexual promiscuity.

The insistence of the Catholic Church that sexual abstinence is the best way forward has been dismissed as mere pie-in-the-sky. The significance of Sr Duggan's and Sr Lawlor's program is that it shows the Church's attitude is not pie-in-the-sky. It shows that, properly promoted, chastity has very real, very positive results.

Sr Duggan explains why they set up Youth Alive: "We were being overwhelmed with hundreds of people coming into our hospitals with AIDS. In South Africa and Zimbabwe the hospitals are so overcrowded that most AIDS patients are cared for at home."

Loss of traditional values

She adds: "There are many reasons why AIDS has spread so much in Africa, but mainly it is because of a loss of traditional cultural values. While traditionally Africans practised polygamy, they also respected the values of virginity before marriage, and fidelity and faithfulness within marriage. That has changed."

In 1995, Sr Duggan was among several Irish missionary sisters at the Dakar Conference on HIV and AIDS. She recalls: "There were many people there coming up with figures and statistics about how fast the disease was spreading and where, but no one was addressing the root causes, the behaviour that was causing HIV and AIDS to spread."

With Sr Kay Lawlor, Sr Duggan founded Youth Alive, an organisation of youth clubs, which promotes "Education for Life" behaviour change.

Sr Duggan explains: "As well as giving young people an awareness about AIDS, education for life looks at people's lifestyle values and the values that people have lost. The first question asked is, 'What is life like for you?' Then we move on to ask, 'What are the risks in your present behaviour in your workplace; in your social life; in drinking or in taking drugs?' We then look at alternative less risky behaviours and critique them: 'What would life be like then?' This helps people make a commitment to abstain from sex until marriage ... but this commitment needs on-going support.

"One thing we discovered is that young people have a great sense of wanting to belong - one reason they get into sex, drink or drugs is because of peer pressure. Most of the peer pressure was negative and we had to find a way of turning that around. We did this through Youth Alive clubs which give young people a group that supports one another.

"At Youth Alive they carry out many activities together, develop their talents through drama festivals, debates, becoming involved in fund- raising for orphan care, or even in caring for orphans themselves. Though it involves chastity promotion, it is much more broad than that: it is looking at values and the need for respect for everything."

Such an approach to AIDS prevention, and indeed the prevention of crisis pregnancies, is far more effective than the promotion of condom use, says Sr Duggan: "A condom will reduce the risk, but it won't take away the risk completely. If you look at the reality, despite all the condom promotion, there are thousands of new HIV cases.

There is also a psychological effect, she says: young people who make a commitment to wait until marriage to have sex are also more likely to be faithful."

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