Oct 12, 2018

A Message to Teenage Girls: From one to another

Babalwa & Anathi at an advocacy event in New York
Babalwa & Anathi at an advocacy event in New York

Anathi Mbono is the second of three children and the only girl in the family. Two years ago, her mother Babalwa, who had tested HIV-positive while pregnant with Anathi, disclosed her status to her. Babalwa was one of mothers2mothers (m2m) first clients and Mentor Mother. Thanks to the support provided by m2m, Anathi was born HIV-negative. Now, she is 15 years old and is in her first year of high school. Anathi actively spreads knowledge about health and HIV prevention among her peers.

We caught up with Anathi in Pretoria, South Africa where she lives with her family to find out what it’s like to be a teenager in South Africa nowadays.

 

What do you want the world to know about your life growing up in South Africa?

Being a teenager in general is hard. You are never sure whether you are a child or an adult. One moment you’re told you’re too young to make your own decisions and the next, you’re told you’re too old to not know what to do. It feels like we are always told what to do, and no one really asks us how we feel.

The challenges we face today are also different to the challenges our parents faced, so they often don’t know how to talk to us. It is even harder in South Africa and in the townships where opportunities are limited. We live in a time where HIV is affecting mostly young people, sometimes because of the choices we make and sometimes because of the choices our parents made.

Do you and your girl friends think about your health and how it impacts other parts of your lives?

We do. Many of us are responsible because we know that the choices we make set us up for the rest of our lives. Sadly, not all of us think like that. Some risk everything just to be happy now. And when I try to talk to them they think I am trying to be a ‘Miss Know-it-all’ and there’s nothing I can do about it.

Has your mum’s role as a mothers2mothers Mentor Mother Trainer shaped how you think about your role as a health advocate among your friends and the community?

My mother’s HIV status has made our relationship stronger and brought us closer together. I have two brothers so my mother is the one person I can confidently talk to about girl stuff. Her role as a Mentor Mother Trainer means that she’s very informed about HIV and other health issues and I can always rely on her whenever I need information about anything health-related.

My peers don’t have a lot of information about safe sex and our teachers are too embarrassed to talk openly about sex. That is why I took it upon myself to read my mother’s books and learn, so that I can spread that knowledge too. I also rely on her to be able to educate my friends – they know that my mother is always available to answer our questions.

How did your peers react when they found out your mum was HIV-positive?

I told two of my friends about my mother’s status after she disclosed to me. One of them told me that her mother was HIV-positive too and the other asked me to go to mothers2mothers with her to get tested. It was the right move. I was reassured that I was healthy, and I was also able to access free counseling there.

Other kids learned of my mother’s status online from an article of our time at the United Nations General Assembly in New York last year. They started gossiping about me at school and that hurt me a lot. I spoke to my mother about it and got counseling on how to deal with the stigma. After that, I realised that their attitude was due to lack of information so I made it my business to educate them about HIV through the school drama group.

Their attitude has since changed – either because they know more about HIV or because what other people think doesn’t affect me anymore. I know who I am and I am not ashamed.

On International Day of the Girl, what would you like to say to other girls who may not realise how important their health is in reaching their dreams?

That it doesn’t matter who judges you or looks down on you because of what you have or do not have; what matters is what is inside of you. You have a choice: either pick yourself up after every small mistake and learn from them, or lose your dignity while trying to please the world. No one will respect you if you don’t respect yourself.

What would your message be to world leaders?

To not only focus on what we do wrong but help build us and our dreams. I want celebrities to show us their reality so that we can see that they also have challenges, that way we will not feel like failures when we do not reach our goals at certain ages but we will be inspired to keep trying, no matter how long it takes.

Spokeswoman Babalwa Mbono with her daughter Anathi
Spokeswoman Babalwa Mbono with her daughter Anathi

Links:

May 17, 2018

Babalwa and Anathi's Story

Anathi and Babalwa
Anathi and Babalwa

Last fall, we introduced you to Babalwa Mbono, a South Africa-based mothers2mothers (m2m) employee, and her teenage daughter, Anathi, who were in New York for United Nations General Assembly gatherings. Right now, they are on Capitol Hill in Washington DC being featured at an event celebrating 15 years of the U.S. President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR). Babalwa tells her story here.

“When I was eight months pregnant with my second child, Anathi, I learned I was HIV-positive during a routine test. I went into shock.

I kept asking the counselor at the clinic if she was sure; I wanted to believe it was some cruel joke. I looked and felt perfectly healthy, unlike my older sister, who had died of AIDS-related tuberculosis several years earlier.

I went home and angrily confronted my husband. He denied he’d infected me, but I made him go straight to the clinic, where he, too, tested positive. He was deeply ashamed, and kept apologizing, but I was furious.

I kept picturing my sister, so weak and emaciated, at the end of her life. I worried that my baby would be born with HIV, and that I wouldn’t live long enough to care for him or her. I felt lost and afraid, with no idea what to do.

That’s when my counselor told me about mothers2mothers, which she described as a support group for women who were HIV-positive. I was connected with a Mentor Mother, a local mom living with HIV who had been trained as a front-line healthcare worker. She reassured me that my diagnosis was not necessarily a death sentence for either me or my baby. She also told me about antiretroviral treatments (ARVs) that would greatly reduce the chances of me transmitting HIV to my baby during my pregnancy.

There was another pregnant mother in my support group, and having someone else to voice my fears to was very helpful because my husband was still in denial and wouldn’t talk about it. I began to feel empowered—like I was finally in control of my life after months of feeling like a victim.

Still, I was terrified when I went into labor. The happiest moment of my life had been giving birth to my first child, but when I delivered Anathi and held her in my arms, all I could think of was whether or not she was HIV-positive.

She was tested at birth and periodically for months afterward, but we could not definitely rule out infection until she was 9 months old. Those first few months of her life weren’t spent celebrating her first smile, the first time she sat up or the first time she crawled. I was literally living in fear.

I also wasn’t able to breastfeed her, like I did my son, because of concerns about HIV transmission, and I felt guilty about that. Thankfully, I had the other women in mothers2Mmthers, a whole new community of sisters who understood what I was going through.

When I learned Anathi was HIV-negative, they were the first people I told.

I was so grateful that I had mothers2mothers in my life that I agreed to become a Mentor Mother.

I wanted to give back to a group that had given me so much. It was empowering for them, but also for me. It was also a great opportunity to work in a healthcare environment in which I could learn more about some of the research and treatments for HIV.

Thankfully, I remained asymptomatic for eight years until 2010, when I went on antiretroviral medications and was able to get the disease under control. My doctors are optimistic I’ll live a full, long life. My husband went on antiretroviral medications in 2005 and is doing great.

It’s been nothing short of miraculous that I’ve been able to see my babies become teenagers. I told Anathi that I was HIV-positive last year, when she was 13. It’s very difficult to disclose this type of information to your child. I worried about how she would take it. I could tell she was shocked and upset, but I reassured her that I was still in good health and that she wasn’t infected.

But now that she’s a teenager, I’m faced with the challenge of letting her out into the world. Her friends are starting to have sex, and some are pregnant and a few even have HIV. I’ve made sure we talk openly about HIV at home, and I’ve made it quite clear to Anathi that while I feel she’s too young for sex, if she does decide to have it, she needs to insist that her partner wear a condom.

It’s not easy for any parent to have these conversations, but it’s important, since we can’t be with our children 24/7. We need to give them the tools to make their own informed decisions.

Over the last 14 years I’ve gone from counseling other women on HIV and family planning to training other mentors and seeing them go on to have fulfilling careers as nurses and social workers.

Almost 99% of babies in mothers2mothers’ South Africa programme test negative for HIV, and that makes me thrilled. I feel like I’ve done my job. I’ve watched countless pregnant women break down when they tell me they have HIV—and then helped build them back up.

These mothers face so many challenges, yet they all come back for follow-up visits proud and determined. And I’m determined to always be there for them."

Mar 8, 2018

We've Launched in Mozambique!

Official Launch in Maputo, Mozambique
Official Launch in Maputo, Mozambique

“The dream of ending mother-to-child transmission of HIV in Mozambique can become a reality, if we can collaborate to find ways to keep women and families in care for longer.” 

That was the clear consensus in late January at the gathering in Maputo for mothers2mothers’ (m2m) official launch in Mozambique. The launch brings the number of countries in sub-Saharan Africa where m2m operates to eight.

Mozambique is one of the countries worst affected by the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Estimates suggest that around one in eight Mozambicans is living with HIV and 130,000 pregnant women are in need of antiretrovirals (ARVs). The country has made progress in reducing infections among children and increasing both the number of women and couples testing for HIV and the number of HIV-positive pregnant women on ARVs, yet like many resource-limited countries, Mozambique struggles with retaining HIV-positive pregnant women and new mothers in care, which has resulted in an increased risk of HIV transmission during the breastfeeding period and lower rates of testing among HIV-exposed infants.

“This can change. In countries facing similar challenges to Mozambique, mothers2mothers has achieved virtual elimination of paediatric AIDS for the past three years in a row among our enrolled clients,” m2m President and CEO, Frank Beadle de Palomo, told the audience gathered for the launch.

m2m has formed a strategic partnership with the Mozambican Health Ministry (MISAU) to bolster the country’s efforts to eliminate paediatric AIDS and reach global goals. m2m will roll out its Mentor Mother Model—through which HIV-positive women help expectant mothers and breastfeeding women to avoid passing the virus on to their children—across the country through a blend of direct service delivery, by partnering with other NGOs, and by providing technical assistance. An initial $6 million in funding over a two-year period is being provided by the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), administered through the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).

Working in close collaboration with MISAU, Jhpiego, and other partners, m2m will initially provide Mentor Mother services in 24 high-volume health facilities, including in the provinces of Zambezia and Sofala, which have among the highest rates of HIV in the country. m2m Mentor Mothers will work in these facilities and the surrounding communities, visiting women and families at home who have not accessed medical care or who have dropped out of treatment and linking them to Mentor Mothers at the health facilities. In addition to direct service delivery, our technical assistance and implementation will include developing robust curriculum, training, and monitoring and evaluation tools to help MISAU and other partners.

“mothers2mothers has a long track record of working as a trusted partner to governments and NGOs to end paediatric AIDS,” Frank said. “We have seen our Mentor Mother Model become national policy in nations including South Africa and Kenya. Now, we look forward to sharing this knowledge and expertise with our colleagues in Mozambique to ensure the vision of an HIV-free generation becomes a reality.”

For more information on m2m’s programme in Mozambique, please click here.

 
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