Sunday, March 4, 2007

The All-African Conference: Sister to Sister, A Success Story

The All-Africa Conference: Sister to Sister

Purpose, Dynamics, History

The Focus of the All Africa Conference: Sister to Sister project, is to empower African women religious to confront the cultural, religious and patriarchal norms operative in that continent in order to tackle the pandemic of HIV/Aids in sub-Saharan Africa. Focusing on MDG 6 which aims combat HIV/Aids the Sister to Sister project is an example of good practice which empowers the women to look at the WHAT;WHY and the HOW to prevent the further spread of this pandemic which has affected many of their own families. The AACSS has been in operation for several years and is growing. One of the main focal point persons is active on the CONGO HIV Aids Committee.

The All-Africa Conference: Sister to Sister (AACSS) brings together Women religious so that they may address the crisis of HIV/AIDS by listening, learning and empowering one another to collaborate in strategies for prevention and care in response to the HIV/AIDS pandemic. The AACSS has offered a conference for Sisters in each of three sub-Saharan regions: Southeast Africa, August 2003; Southern Africa, April 2004; West Africa, February 2005. In May 2006 Ugandan Sisters offered a national AACSS conference for 112 Sisters. In December 2006, national AACSS conferences were offered by local Sisters in Cameroon and Nigeria. From all these conferences over 500 Sisters are presently involved with the AACSS in 21 countries and are actively implementing plans to educate their communities and ministries about the issues of HIV/AIDS. One long-range Action Project beginning on March 19th 2007 in Uganda will offer local Sisters, during a three year period, certificates, diplomas and BA degrees in counseling.

The AACSS focuses on Women because they are more readily stigmatized than men and bear a disproportionate share of the burden of the pandemic - both as vulnerable to infection and as primary caregivers to those who are infected. These are people at the grassroots amid desperate suffering need the concern and care of informed and hope-filled people.

Faith Communities, without fully realizing the impact of their beliefs, actually contribute to stigmatization and powerlessness by hindering education for understanding and prevention. Women throughout Africa confirm that although these issues are indeed critical, silence about them prevails. This is the silence that the AACSS wishes to break. The AACSS offers an opportunity for Sisters to empower each other in order to examine the prejudice and negative attitudes that foster stigmatization and limit positive approaches to the HIV/AIDS pandemic. In the ongoing process of implementing the Action Plans developed during each conference, the Sisters reach out to other women in this spirit of empowerment.

The AACSS focuses the conference primarily upon Women religious for two reasons. First, they are greatly respected by the people to/with whom they minister and will be empowered to speak about HIV/AIDS with strength, care, increased information and hope. Second, the quality of trust that is essential for women to address the deeply held attitudes that presently stigmatize people can be achieved more easily with the bonding that exists between Sisters. Their bonding with each other is based upon their shared, profound bonding with Christ.

In order to minimize possible discomfort to the indigenous Sisters who may be deeply sensitive to a perceived arrogance of the West, the conferences are focused to demonstrate that the AACSS’s concern is not “from The West to Africa” but “from Sister to Sister.” The AACSS shows concern for the dignity of Sisters in Africa by insisting that each Coordinating Committee in Africa must own the agenda and then actually plan and implement the proposed conference.

Each Conference is offered in a site that is suitable because of its accessability and/or resources. A working-group of interested Sisters from a given area are invited to meet in a central location. The AACSS Co-directors attend this meeting during which the local Sisters form a Coordinating Committee for the AACSS.

The Sisters on the Coordinating Committee address the concrete issues of offering the conference. They approve the conference design, develop ways to implement the design, select conference presenters, arrange for an appropriate conference site, and finally they assign
specific responsibilities.

The actual seven day conference offers more than information to the local Sisters. They listen with mind and heart to each other and have opportunities to feel, identify and share the painful realities of their lives within the HIV/AIDS pandemic. The Sisters discuss issues at a level of intimacy and pain that requires the confidentiality and the trust of a Sister-talking-with-a-Sister. Prayerful time and ritual create an environment of trust. Confidentiality is so essential that the Sisters make a clear promise to each other to keep the contents of small group discussions in utmost confidence. In this spirit-filled context, each Sister realizes that she is accepted just as she is with whatever problems she faces.

This deep mutual acceptance, which is the heart of the AACSS, can release the Sisters from despair and begin the process of mutual empowering. New information and networking enable them to address HIV/AIDS issues with greater confidence and hope.

Developing a process to bring the fruits and spirit of every conference more deeply and more broadly into sub-Saharan Africa is a fundamental goal of the AACSS. In order to effect change, the conferences call the Sisters to formulate doable, focused and effective responses such as empowering the Sisters in their Congregations and educating community leaders and young people about HIV/AIDS issues. The Sisters are called to join with other groups to lead advocacy movements and to collaborate in processes that can change the negative ways that society treats people living with HIV/AIDS especially women.

The data from the evaluation process are also important to improve the development and presentation of future conferences.

AACSS Conferences affirm that African women are powerful in themselves; however,
in response to the HIV/AIDS pandemic, a lack of resources has limited their ability to come together, to share problems, to discern together, to collaborate in ministries and to implement effective action plans. The basic objectives of the AACSS have to do with overcoming these limits.

Sisters in Africa evaluate all intervention must as they access what they need in order to more effectively face the HIV/AIDS pandemic. During the evaluation of the conferences, the Coordinating Committees weigh variables such as ethnic barriers, influence of male dominance and limited means of communication.

In summary, the AACSS is a unique, spirit-filled effort to affect the lives of desperately poor people suffering amid the ravages of the HIV/AIDS pandemic in Africa. Local women religious mutually empowered by sharing grace-filled time and sustained by ongoing mutual support will continue to bring increased knowledge, wisdom, strength and hope to the lives of some of the poorest people suffering amid HIV/AIDS.

Margaret Farley, RSM Eileen Hogan, RSM co-Directors
All-Africa Conference: Sister to Sister; TEL + 1-718-584-7751;
<> Website: <>

A project of the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas an NGO in special consultative status with the UN