[WCC, by Fredrick Nzwili] A lay Anglican woman in Uganda is helping to build an HIV competent community and church, in a country where the epidemic is still a big challenge. Josephine Kasaato is president of the Mothers’ Union in the Namirembe Diocese in the capital of Uganda, Kampala. She is using her position to create awareness and educate the community about HIV and Aids. Her voice is often heard across the diocese’s 65 parishes where she censures stigma, discrimination and denial – key challenges in the struggle against the virus.
A mother of four, Kasaato has been outspoken against sexual- and gender-based violence and HIV, and has also been identifying critical areas, such as increased rape cases and violence against girls, and moves to create awareness among church and community leaders.
“We are targeting zero by 2020. I believe we shall have success stories to tell by then,” says the professional teacher, designer and evangelist.
Five years ago, she joined the World Council of Churches’ Ecumenical HIV and Aids Initiatives and Advocacy (WCC-EHAIA) reference group as the eastern Africa representative.
Starting in Maganjo, a small parish in the diocese, the “fire” has spread across five dioceses.
“The five bishops support our work, including the archbishop,” Kasaato says.
The first year’s work revolved around sensitising the people, church leaders and the community, with the union developing visit teams, carrying out home visits and creating home cells. “The aim was to see how we could do more and fight HIV and Aids better,” she says.
The second year focused on eliminating mother-to-child transmission, with the union joining with the first lady, Janet Museveni who was implementing a similar project. The group targeted eliminating stigma, shame, discrimination, denial, inaction and mis-action – intertwined “evils” which experts say are crucial in understanding and overcoming the epidemic.
Alongside this, the union promoted Save (safer practices, access to medicines, voluntary counselling and testing, and empowerment), an approach positive touted as a replacement for ABC (abstain, be faithful and use a condom).
This year, the union has been working on creating a safe space for people to be screened fully on HIV, with focus on youth. Since February, each deaconry has been running a contextual Bible study on this area. “We have been visiting the groups and doing the Bible study with them,” says the leader, whose activities end each year with drama and a music competition.
Kasaato says she is inspired by the people – like Canon Gideon Byamugisha and the Revd Rahab Wanjiru Kariuki – who are living a positive life and working to end HIV, despite their positive status.
“They (people living positively) have stood and said ‘no discrimination; we have to carry on the struggle’. That inspires me a lot,” she says.
For her, the people are a shining light that helps to increase HIV disclosure and encourage the continued uptake of anti-retroviral treatment.
“If more people who are living a positive life can take a leading role, I think that can take us to another horizon,” she adds.
Their work is also often misinterpreted, with the people wrongly believing westerners have given them extensive funds to carry out the campaigns. But sometimes it gets dry, she explains, such that funds to facilitate the very basic tasks of visiting vulnerable people – like grandmothers taking care of HIV orphans – are unavailable.
“I can’t visit with the Bible only. I need to carry some sugar or some clothing. Some areas are also remote,” says Kasaato.
Recently, she has taken on the fight against misleading faith healing.
“The truth is people are being paid to say the Holy Spirit has healed them. Unfortunately, they eventually die,” she says. “We are speaking to Ugandans and telling them not to believe these lies. I encourage them to take anti-retroviral drugs (ARVs). I say to them Jesus is the healer through ARVs.”
She has also reached out at the Interreligious Council of Uganda over the issue.
“We told them (healing pastors) after you pray, you prove by testing,” she says.
Meanwhile, the leader is concerned that the church is meeting only 30 per cent of the work and leaving the congregation to find out the remaining 70 percent on their own.
“I think the church should rise up and use what it has. It has a platform and the pulpit every Sunday,” says Kasaato, explaining that the pastors and the clergy should take the lead because they have authority.
Still, she challenges church leaders and pastors to know the status of their congregations to ascertain sustainability in their lives.
“Will they be giving the offertory and the tithes ten years to come? Will they have the money or will they be spending it on drugs only or will they still be alive?” she challenges the leaders.
For her, the global campaign against HIV and Aids is on course, but the world has to consider how it is reaching the zero target, and whether the eyes are on the solutions or the problems.