What’s the best way to support a woman who’s just learned she’s pregnant and HIV positive? Who is the best person to to help her understand that her baby can be born healthy? The answer seemed simple. A peer. Another HIV-positive mother with a healthy child, who’s been there and knows that life doesn’t have to come to an end because of HIV.
That was the big idea that inspired the founding of mothers2mothers (m2m), an Africa-based NGO focused on one clear goal: ending mother-to-child HIV transmission by training women to become Mentor Mothers, empowered with knowledge and tools to keep other HIV-positive moms healthy and their babies HIV-free.
Seeing the need to educate, reduce stigma and make HIV treatment accessible, m2m’s founders sprung into action. Within a short time, more and more Mentor Mothers were being trained, and more women were staying healthy, giving birth to HIV-free babies and signing on to mentor other pregnant women to do the same. m2m’s Mentor Mothers were “paying it forward” – strengthening the existing health system, and showing HIV-positive pregnant women that an HIV diagnosis didn’t need to be a death sentence.
This year marks 10 years of a partnership that’s helped expand one of the most effective models in global health. Together in ten years, Johnson & Johnson and m2m, united in a shared vision of a future where no baby is born with HIV, have seen just how many lives have been changed. Women like Denise Manong who once thought their lives were over, remain healthy, with children who remain HIV-free. Denise is one of 1,800 mentor mothers currently employed by m2m. Johnson & Johnson recently had the privilege to hear her reflections on 10 years of working to improve the lives of mothers in her community.
1. My Mind Went Blank
When I was pregnant in 2004, I was excited about my pregnancy. But when the counselor came in and told me I was HIV positive, everything just went blank in my mind. I was scared of dying and worried about my baby. I was scared of what would happen to my baby, and what people would say about me. Will they be pointing fingers at me? And telling me that I deserve to be infected with HIV or that I’ve been having a lot of men in my life. I was so scared about how my family would handle the news.
2. Beautiful, Pregnant Women
I went to my first antenatal appointment and that’s when the counselor told me that there are other women just like me - pregnant and HIV positive. She showed me the door to m2m and told me that they could help. I was so shocked when I entered the room and saw all these beautiful, pregnant women. I was expecting to see women who were sick and dying. And then they started sharing their story about how to live with HIV. For me, it was such a surprise. I asked myself, am I in the right room?
3. A Lovely Lady Changed My Perspective
While we were sitting and sharing our stories, there was this lovely lady. And she told me, you know today you’re going to be ok. Today, you’re going to feel so sad but tomorrow you will feel better. The only thing you need to know is that you have to accept yourself, and the only thing you can do is control what you can.
4. Courage When I Needed It
I loved the way she welcomed me in the organization and into the support group. She didn’t judge me she didn’t point any fingers at me. She accepted and understood me. She gave me all the courage and support I needed at that point. I learned that HIV doesn’t have to kill me. I’ll be in control.
5. A Second Chance to Help Others
When I learned that my first child was HIV negative, I was so happy. That’s the day I decided to help other women to accept their HIV. I love my kids so much. I can’t believe that God has given me this second chance and that both my kids are HIV-free.
6. Unstoppable Dreams
It’s been such an amazing job for me to share my experience with another woman who is HIV positive and doesn’t know what to do with her life. Who is scared about what’s going to happen to her baby and about what other people are going to say. That’s where I can say, look at me. I’ve been HIV positive for 11 years and I am living with two children who are HIV-free. I tell them the only thing they need to do is accept yourself as a woman and as person. And there’s nothing that’s stopping you in your life. You can go on with your life and your dreams.
7. Helping Mothers, Strengthening Communities
I’ve mentored many other moms. One of the mothers I mentored, Konjiswa, is now a Mentor Mother, and she’s doing the best she can to help other women who are living with HIV. We help women not for money, but for our children, for our families for our communities and for people to see how important it is to live with HIV.
8. Everyday Smiles
At first, when I started in 2005, the stigma was so bad. Everyone was scared. But now it’s so wonderful to see a woman talking about it outside in a taxi or a bus and hearing them say, “I am HIV positive,” and being proud of themselves. Without m2m, I wouldn’t be the person I am today. Every time I hear a mother tell me that her baby is HIV negative, it puts a smile on my face. That’s why I get up to work. That’s what makes me so proud of who I am today and living with HIV.
9. Care, Protect and Live
I would say to the mother, take good care of yourself first and accept that you are HIV positive and that it won’t go away. Do everything possible to make sure that your baby doesn’t get HIV. I would also say that no matter what anyone says about you being HIV positive, just concentrate on yourself and your baby. Live your life to the fullest because no one is going to change it or give you another life.
Looking back ten years to when Johnson & Johnson joined in partnership with m2m, more than 1,000 babies were born HIV-positive every day; today, that number is closer to 400. What started in a single clinic in South Africa is now a renowned program that has reached 1.5 million HIV-positive women in six countries in Africa. The results m2m has achieved speak for themselves: in 2015, m2m virtually eliminated mother-to-child HIV among its clients.
World Aids Day is about living. Empowering women like Denise, and putting their needs and experiences first is critical to keeping our world healthy. m2m is leading the way toward a generation free from HIV, and we couldn’t be more proud to be their partner.
Visit jnj.com/HIV to see additional stories of progress and hope as we reflect on World AIDS Day 2016.