In February 2004, my best friend in the world passed away. Grief is always terrible but in this case, it was life-altering in a big way. Karen’s untimely tragic death to routine shoulder surgery followed the loss of both my mother and stepfather, and a bout with breast cancer. This not only changed my life, my heart, and my future… but led to a move for me and my family 10,000 miles away to live in Cape Town, South Africa.
Over the two weeks I spent sitting in the hospital by Karen’s side, her brother Mitch Besser, an ob-gyn working in South Africa, told me how he had started employing and empowering HIV-positive mothers in the community to help pregnant women prevent the transmission of HIV to their babies. And he invited me to come to South Africa to see what he was doing.
That first day, accompanying Mitch on hospital rounds, I fell head over heels in love with the bravest, most spirited, extraordinary women I had ever met. One after another, they told stories of tragedy, heartbreak, and hopelessness. Yet none of them gave in to them…they sang, they laughed, they endured…and they gave me hope. So much so, that I called my husband that night to say I wanted to work with Mitch to turn mothers2mothers (m2m) into an organization worthy of the African women that needed it so desperately.
At that time, pediatric AIDS had almost entirely been eliminated in the U.S., yet over 1,000 babies were being infected daily with HIV, mostly in sub-Saharan Africa. The Mentor Mothers we trained over the course of the next years achieved dramatic results. Not only do they educate and support HIV-positive women to access lifesaving treatment, they are professionalized and financially independent, becoming role models in their communities and reducing stigma. Mentor Mothers also provide much needed support to medical staff at critically understaffed health centers. They have become a third tier of medical care, forming trusted relationships with clients. They are game-changers!
Game-changers like Beauty, now a m2m Mentor Mother, who at age 17, when most adolescents feel that life has just begun, thought hers was over. On her way home from school, she and a friend decided to stop by a mobile clinic and get tested for HIV, sure they had nothing to worry about. Beauty was so frightened when her results came back positive. “I knew very little about the virus. All I knew was that it is a killer. People in my community incorrectly referred to HIV as AIDS and everyone knew that AIDS kills,” she says.
She didn’t tell anyone her status as she feared she would be judged harshly and did not follow the nurse’s advice to start treatment. Two years later when she became pregnant, Beauty’s HIV status was still her biggest secret. There was no one she could tell how worried she was about infecting her unborn baby or raising a sick child.
Beauty soon discovered there were women at her clinic near Pretoria, South Africa, ready to stand by her side and help her through these terrifying times. They were HIV-positive mothers, employed, trained, and empowered by mothers2mothers (m2m) as Mentor Mothers.
The first Mentor Mother Beauty met was Irene Nkosi who had also tested positive as a young woman, and was living proof it is possible to have an HIV-negative child and lead a full and healthy life. “Mentor Mothers became my pillar, people I would turn to when I needed support and advice,” Beauty says.
Beauty started treatment and disclosed her status to her mother, who assured her everything would be fine. Disclosing to her partner was more difficult, as initially he did not take the news well. With the help of the Mentor Mothers, Beauty encouraged him to get tested for HIV. She may have saved his life because he, too, was positive.
Beauty is one of the nearly 1.7 million HIV-positive women that m2m has reached since its founding 15 years ago at a single Cape Town clinic. We are now currently operating in seven sub-Saharan countries, providing education and support to women and their families in hundreds of health centers and communities. Our Mentor Mother Approach has been proven to improve health outcomes of mothers and infants, while also achieving significant savings in averted HIV treatment costs. And through the tremendous efforts of Mentor Mothers like Irene, we have virtually eliminated mother-to-child transmission of HIV among our clients according to UNAIDS guidelines, which define elimination as less than 5%. In 2016, we were thrilled that our average transmission rate was only 1.6%!
Today 300 babies are still infected with HIV daily in sub-Saharan Africa, which is both tragic and unnecessary. m2m is evolving even further to help end this epidemic. Several years ago, we took an exciting step that for the first time brought Mentor Mothers out of health centers and placed them in communities. Community Mentor Mothers are now visiting the homes of pregnant women and new mothers who have not engaged with the health system or have missed appointments, and encouraging them to access treatment at the health facility. By going into homes, we also have an opportunity to interact with other family members – including male partners, older children, and adolescents – and link them to healthcare. In 2016 alone, m2m reached more than 1.9 million women, children, adolescents and male partners.
We are also making sure that children not only have the opportunity to survive but also to thrive, by educating and supporting parents and caregivers on early childhood development. And when they enter adolescence, we are using our same peer model to make sure that they don’t become one of the 7,500 adolescent girls, between the ages of 15 and 25, to be infected with HIV each week.
As for Beauty, her life is full of possibilities. She is now employed by m2m as a Mentor Mother and works in the same clinic as Irene, the Mentor Mother who first helped her. When an adolescent girl arrives at her clinic, she makes a point to meet with her and give her the support she wished she had had when she was first diagnosed. “I have to be a friend to them, because I know how I felt as a 17 year old who had just tested positive. I was lonely and had no one, so I know it is not easy being HIV positive, and a pregnant young person. You are scared to tell your parents because you are still a child yourself,” she says.
Beauty is now the mother of not one, but two children…both are HIV negative. That baby she worried so much about is now four years old, a girl named Ntokozo which means “happiness” in Xhosa.
It is stories of women like Beauty and Irene – women who are providing health and hope to so many – that inspire me each and every day. And as the mother of two daughters myself, nothing is more important than teaching them that one Beauty can overcome any Beast…even HIV.
Robin Smalley is the Co-Founder and Director of mothers2mothers. To learn more about their life-giving work visit m2m.org or follow them at @m2mtweets.