Irish missionary, Sr Miriam Duggan, told a gathering in Sacred Heart Cathedral last month of how a behaviour change programme based on abstinence has turned the fortunes of AIDS victims in Uganda.
About 80 people turned out in Wellington on 26 September to hear how, as the superintendent of the Kampala hospital in Uganda, Sr Miriam worked to overcome a ‘culture of death’ that was overwhelming the people of this African nation.
In 1987 the incidence of AIDS in the general population was more than a quarter (28.9 percent), yet by 2002 the rate had dropped to below 10 percent (9.8 percent).
Sr Miriam’s initial probing into reasons behind this escalation in a killer disease had her asking young people where they got their sex education from.
‘They say from TV, magazines and friends; and where do their friends get it? – from TV, magazines and friends,’ she said.
‘But I think the church and the school need to play an important role in giving value-based education to young people.’
Sr Miriam said an AIDS conference in Dakar in 1991 brought together 50 people from different Christian denominations and various African nations to look at possible solutions.
‘A lot of organisations were saying that the only answer was to give people the condom. But we really felt that many people could change their behaviour and attitudes and we needed to work on that.’
So Sr Miriam and her fellow missionaries set out to promote a behaviour change programme written by Sr Kay Lawler called Education for Life: a Behaviour Change Process.
This involved inviting them to come to three or five-day sessions working with groups of 14 to 18-year-olds, 18 to 25-year-olds, and 25 and older.
The first stage asked participants to ‘look at the reality of their lives, their relationships and drinking habits.
At the end of this stage which also discussed sex and sexuality, they were shown the mortality statistics on Uganda and asked to look 15 years into the future.
‘We get them to look at where we will be in 15 years time when maybe they are the leaders of the country,’ she said.
The second stage looked at alternative behaviours such as abstinence before marriage and faithfulness within it.
‘What if people decide to wait until marriage to have sex or if people decide to be faithful within marriage, is it possible? What will their friends say? Will they be able to remain friends? Will it be possible to stand against the negative peer pressure?’ she asked.
The third stage of the programme was based on action. Participants chose an appropriate mode of behaviour and committed themselves to it.
An important belief supporting the programme of behaviour change was that individuals recognised not only that they needed to change, but that they could change and they could call on the Holy Spirit to help them.
The results began to show in a decline in the statistics but the young people were coming back asking for more help to counter negative peer pressure.
So Sr Miriam started ‘Youth Alive’ clubs – positive peer groups offering sports, musical festivals and drama as well as ongoing support and education for young people making positive life choices.
Education topics included drugs, alcohol, self-esteem, and honesty aimed at building them up in integrity and helping them to make responsible choices.
The Ugandan president, Yoweri Museveni, was also supportive.
He vigorously promoted a government ABC method (abstinence, be faithful to one partner, and if necessary, condoms). The Catholic approach included using the ‘c’ for character formation.
Sr Miriam also included a ‘gospel response’ of reaching out in love and care to those suffering with the disease and their families.
‘I have seen hundreds of people come back to God after getting the sickness, and even mothers becoming Christians, through witnessing God’s love and mercy in their sickness. One young man said words I will never forget: “I had to get this disease to find my God”.’
Sr Miriam Duggan joined the Franciscan order of missionaries at the age of 19 and has worked in African for more than 30 years.
She is now the congregational leader of the Franciscan Missionary Sisters of Africa and, based in Ireland, her work is spreading across Africa with 11 other countries also promoting abstinence and faithfulness.
Wel-com has copies of Sr Miriam’s speech notes. If you would like a copy, please send an SAE to Welcom, PO Box 1937, Wellington 6015.