Robin Smalley from mothers2mothers talks about the organization’s Mentor Mother program, which helps comfort and educate women who are both pregnant and HIV-positive.
Finding out that she is pregnant should be joyful news for a woman -– but learning that she is pregnant and has HIV can turn that hope into devastation.
Each year, nearly 400,000 children in Africa are born with HIV. There are very few doctors at the clinics, where overworked, overburdened nurses don’t have time to sit with a frightened expectant mother and explain what having HIV might mean for her baby. Women are left numb with shock and fear, full of questions that they are sometimes too overwhelmed to ask.
I have met many of these women, and heard their stories. Some come to mothers2mothers, the organization I cofounded with Mitch Besser and Gene Falk, terrified and convinced that they have received a death sentence for themselves and their children, and even talk about having an abortion or committing suicide. Some go into denial about their diagnosis, and are so angry and frustrated that they refuse to accept it.
Then, these same women meet their Mentor Mother, a woman who knows exactly what it is like to find out you are pregnant and HIV positive, almost in the same breath. The Mentor Mother remembers that feeling of hopelessness and dread, when she was convinced that her baby would be born with HIV and die soon.
At first, a woman usually doesn’t believe that her Mentor Mother has HIV/AIDS, saying she looks too healthy. Then the Mentor Mother shows pictures of her own children, and tells how they were born without HIV. Now, the woman feels relieved that she can make sure her child is born HIV-free, and is empowered to tell her family about her status and that her baby will be born healthy. When she leaves the clinic, she stands taller and her eyes are bright. She is on her way to living positively, and eventually brings her beautiful baby with her to mothers2mothers’ support groups.
There are more than 1,700 HIV-positive women employed by mothers2mothers, and each one has an important job in keeping mothers healthy and preventing mother-to-child transmission of HIV. When a pregnant woman joins mothers2mothers, she meets women who have been specially trained to step in where the medical system stops, using their own experiences to share life-saving information. She learns about treatment that will prevent her child from getting HIV. She learns that she is not alone, and that there is hope and help.
Mother-to-child transmission of HIV is almost entirely preventable, and mothers2mothers is showing women the way. There are Mentor Mothers at nearly 700 sites across Africa, reaching more than 200,000 people every month. We are working to remove the stigma of HIV and showing how powerful each mother can be. I am so proud to be a part of an organization that makes a difference for so many thousands of other women and for the next generation of babies in Africa.
Click here to view a video about the stories of some of the women involved in mothers2mothers, and the important work that Mentor Mothers do every day.
-Robin Smalley, cofounder and international director, mothers2mothers