By Sr.Cynthia Mgwena CPS & Br. Alfonce Kugwa
Religious Sisters from Malawi, Nigeria, Zambia, Uganda, United States of America and Zimbabwe converged in Harare, Zimbabwe from 29 April to 2 May 2019 on a Sister to Sister programme to deliberate on ways of empowering women in consecrated life under the theme, “Building and Nurturing Communities for Empowerment.”
About 250 Sisters from different local and regional congregations took time to discuss and share experiences on supporting sisters infected and affected by HIV/AIDS, wellness of sisters and strengthening religious communities of consecrated women. This means taking good care of sisters in living community life, evangelical vows and their pastoral ministry.
The Executive Director for All-Africa Conference for Sister to Sister, Sr. Rosemary Jeffries RSM said the organization supports educational programmes for African women religious throughout the Sub-Sahara so that they can more effectively address HIV/AIDS pandemic and its impact on families and community life.
“Through education, collaboration and prayer, sisters are empowered to implement strategies for prevention and care rooted in our Catholic faith. AAC:SS achieves its mission by supporting workshops, degree programmes in counselling, faith development and biblical studies. Sister to Sister offers many opportunities for participants to grow in leadership skills and in the practice of their faith during and following their studies.” noted Sr. Jeffries.
According to Sr. Jeffries, the Sister to Sister came to being at the request of African women theologians who suggested for a conference of women religious and leaders to address the HIV/AIDS pandemic. This was followed by a meeting for women religious in Africa which resulted in the creation of the All-Africa Conference to empower women religious through education.
The one-week Conference in Harare was premised on the wellness of sisters, how to empower each other as religious women and how they can support the sisters who are both infected and affected by HIV/AIDS. Sr. Jeffries articulated that Sister to Sister served as a process for renewal for all sisters and helped them to be compassionate towards the suffering members of their communities.
“Given the reality that we are sick, the church is sick and the world is sick, the consecrated women endeavor to be a force for ecclesial renewal and societal transformation, and to witness to a new holiness”, Sr. Jeffries stated.
The Regional Conference was a tangible sign of the universal extension of the consecrated life, present in the local Churches throughout Africa and in the world.
Sr. Mayon Sylvain RSM communicated that the Sister to Sister initiative was destined to go a long way in Africa as sisters were being empowered to deal with issues that affect them. She said empowerment was through workshops, meetings and education of sisters so that they wake up to challenges they face every day in their ministry.
“We are considering the quality of our whole lives, not just what we do, but we reflect more deeply on the quality, motivation and kind of presence we offer, the silence has to be broken in our communities and families on the issues of HIV/AIDS and a myriad of other issues,” she reinforced.
The programme is being sold in all countries in Africa as a way of bringing about solidarity among women religious. The country Coordinator for Zambia, Sr. Lontia Siakalambwa said although the idea had a slow uptake in her country, things have since changed with many congregations embracing the programme.
“Sister to Sister had a slow uptake in Zambia because people argued that there were more problems affecting sisters than HIV/AIDS although HIV was also serious. Chronic ailments such as diabetes, hypertension, arthritis, cardiac failure, alzhaimer-dimentia, asthima, cancer, heart conditions and the general wellness of Sisters needed attention and not HIV/AIDS alone. Now the programme exists in 10 dioceses of Zambia and has so far trained 700 sisters through workshops that help break the silence in communities and families,” said Sr. Siakalambwa.
The same was experienced in other countries including Zimbabwe where Sister to Sister took a long time to materialize and somehow died due to similar connotations as raised in Zambia. Sr. Tarisai Zata OP said despite all the misconceptions associated with it the programme has become a force to reckon with for religious women especially in fighting for their rights and all forms of abuse in the church.
Sr. Tarisai explained: “ The presence of more than 250 sisters at this gathering bears testimony to the effectiveness of AAC:SS. It is about the wellness of sisters although HIV/AIDS remains a reality. AAC:SS is a platform for sisters to discuss their religious life and commitment to the vows. It offers us the opportunity to discuss issues that concern us such as treatment of sisters, sexual and physical abuse and our relationship in the ministry of evangelization.”
Sr. Zata said AAC:SS has many benefits to the Zimbabwean sisters as it has opened opportunities for education, fundraising, compassionate sisterhood and solidarity that brings about empowerment.
The Sister to Sister idea was born in Africa at the dawn of the new millennium. Zimbabwe embraced it in 2013, Nigeria 2002, Zambia 2003, Malawi 2004 while in the United States of America, the programme started in 2002.