Another world is possible – on a quiet day I can hear her calling…
Julius and I keep saying if we accomplish one thing during the day, we’re happy! The most exciting thing so far was our meeting with the women to discuss the income-generating group. Sister Ernestine has been working to gather together 30 HIV positive women who are currently supported by the clinic. All of the women are in the HIV support program at Bishop Asili and receive treatment. Most of these women have at some point become very ill, lost their jobs and are in desperate need of renewal – both to financially support their families, but also to feel capable now that they are on treatment, feeling better and wanting to move forward with their lives again. It is about empowerment as much as it is about financial sustainability. These women inspire me. It was all I could do to hold back my tears – officially registering them in the group has been a long, beautiful journey.
These 30 women are the first to register in our official program. Although we have been supporting another group in Kampala, this new group is our first attempt to create a set program developed by the women themselves with a set process to monitor success. The women clapped, spoke up, took turns sharing their stories, expressed their happiness over the opportunity to join this group and their frustration towards the lack of support beyond Kampala for HIV positive women. After much consideration and advising with existing organizations and well-respected researchers in the field, the program was designed to give grants in the form of business and skills training, supplies and the first order of jewellery. Much of the existing development practice of giving loans, which require payback, has long been connected with the same economic model that has guided mainstream development practices limited by the focus on economic progress. In consideration of these limitations, we have chosen a model that does not loan money, but provides skills, education and materials which foster sustainable social development – we are not asking that this money be paid back, but rather that these grants provide the skills, training and materials needed for the women to support themselves in a way that reinforces their ability to contribute to their families and communities. Not only will this improve their lives, but it will also address the stigma they face as HIV positive women who are rarely given the chance to show what they are capable of.
The women were all present as was Sr. Ernestine – Julius led the meeting. We assessed their needs, expectations, set guidelines and elected leaders. We went into the meeting expecting to face certain challenges accomplishing all of our goals and instead everything fell into place exactly as it should. Collectively, we established criteria – each woman must be from the existing support program at Bishop Asili, be HIV positive and have a corresponding number representing her health history at the clinic. We set membership guidelines with regards to support from other organizations and decided that all purchases will first go through Shanti Uganda so that we can properly monitor the success of the program to determine the possibility for growth– other organizations wanting to support the women will purchase the jewellery through Shanti Uganda at our wholesale cost. This was done because there are so many women who want to take part, that it will be difficult for us to establish the program and monitor success unless there are set guidelines. We established the guidelines for growth and addressed questions and concerns. Before Julius needed to answer questions (the whole meeting was in Luganda), the women themselves spoke up to provide what they thought were the best operating practices for THEIR group – he made sure to guide the meeting while at the same time provided opportunities for the women to make it their own. Part of the program at Bishop Asili has been to train many of these women as leaders in the community, so they are used to working together as a group and supporting one another. Electing a leader was unanimous and took less than a minute – The woman who was chosen is also an HIV counselor in the program and will represent this group of women and our income-generating project on our Ugandan advisory board.