Juliet Amamure is the National Co-ordinator and a founding member of Diaspora Women’s Initiative, an organisation that exists to empower migrant women to tackle health and welfare issues in Ireland such as HIV, mental health and self-sustenance.
I am indeed thrilled to be sharing with you the strength and value ACET gave Diaspora Women’s Initiative (DWI) since its inception nearly five years ago. It is a great privilege, as often we tend to plan what is to be done next without reflecting on the small but humble beginnings we have achieved along the road. DWI has had the opportunity to reach out and build networks with religious organisations, statutory bodies and many private and voluntary organisations around Ireland as a result of working in partnership with ACET.
I first met Richard Carson of ACET during an evening event organised by Tearfund at St Mark’s Church on Pearse Street. This gave birth to a partnership between DWI and ACET. ACET has and continues to accompany DWI in her effort to reach out to women in immigrant communities, particularly within churches. One of the highlights of this partnership was my first encounter with migrant church leaders at a focus day hosted by ACET at the Redeemed Christian Church of God’s Jesus Centre parish in Bluebell.
I recall the then CEO of ACET, Richard Phillips, talked about a “Story of Hope” saying the church has an answer to HIV. This was preceded by Pastor Tunde Adebayo-Oke of the Redeemed Christian Church of God who referred to HIV as being like a modern day leprosy which is fuelled by ignorance on how HIV is transmitted leading to stigma and discrimination. I heard Richard Carson (then the Education Director for ACET) demonstrate a fascinating five-dimensional graph showing the trends in HIV over the years. Before open discussions I was then called to give my presentation.
I did not know what to expect when ACET requested me to talk on behalf of DWI to a gathering of faith-based leaders. I thought it was an opportunity to dispel myths surrounding HIV. Initially I was filled with fear to speak as though I had never spoken before. Previously I had had the opportunity to talk at the National Youth Council of Ireland, the School of Nursing in Trinity College, to Concern and Trocaire staff and at Dublin City Council events. But on this particular occasion I somehow felt terrified. I was terrified because it was the first time for me to talk about HIV to religious leaders and particularly to those from an African origin. The fear that was building up inside me was due to reports I had gathered from women living with and affected with HIV in Ireland who have experienced enormous challenges.
I have found that the experiences lived by these women in Ireland show that it was and still is socially unacceptable to get pregnant before marriage in Africa. Extreme but common expressions of gender inequality pertinent among DWI membership were forced early marriages, dropping out of school due to unplanned pregnancies, and lack of support from immediate family. The women became a source of cheap domestic labour. They also became victims of sexual exploitation commonly known as prostitution as this was the only option they were left with in order to raise money to travel overseas. Some of them were exploited into trafficking drugs to different parts of the world and to do this they had to abuse alcohol in order to be able to cope. Also, while medication is available in Ireland, there remain enormous challenges for these women to adhere, whether it is due to side effects or other social factors.
But back to that day in Jesus Centre, and my nervousness at addressing my audience. I had first responded to my fears by consulting two of my advisers and mentors from New Communities partnership and Open Heart House; I also gathered information on HIV in Ireland, UK and America. Finally, I reflected on the HIV issues and characteristics of a woman living with and affected with HIV in Ireland. This formed the basis for my talk.
As I walked up to the podium my inner voice told me to speak slowly, clearly and keep it short. I assured myself that keeping it short was the approach to take since my fellow speakers had said most of the major issues that I had planned to say. I quickly perused my speech and picked out what was not said.
First I said that HIV is real; HIV is in Ireland; HIV is in the church and HIV is here.
I am not a preacher and neither is DWI a support service based on religion, but I recall quoting John 9: 2-3, in which the disciples asked Jesus, “Whose sin caused the man to be born blind? Was it his own or his parents?” Likewise, people living with HIV in Ireland are still being defined by HIV. I found out that the women feared telling their pastors about their HIV status. According to the women, they believed that some preachers often associated sickness, and particularly HIV, to a curse.
I also affirmed to the participants that research in the UK, USA and Ireland shows that HIV-affected immigrants living with HIV are disproportionately affected compared with indigenous populations of the respective host countries.
In saying all this, it is not all bad news. During the time that DWI members have lived in Ireland they have undergone transformation programmes with a variety of organisations such as AkiDwA, An Cosán, Cairdre, SPIRASI, One Family and Ozanam House. These programmes entailed acquiring personal development, leadership and entrepreneurial skills. They have attained third-level education in recognised universities and are now employed in reputable organisations. It is also nice to mention that women on long-term medical care have moved on with their lives despite medical side effects and that some of them have dreams of going back to Africa for development work.