Nozi Samela of mothers2mothers encourages women to “pay it forward” to other women:
All mothers have stories to tell, about our children and our experience bringing them into the world. Sharing those stories with one another is what makes us a community -– it connects us to the shared experience of other families and the generations of women that came before us.
For mothers living with HIV, sharing those stories also has the power to save lives, in our community and beyond.
In my work at an organization called mothers2mothers, I hear life-changing stories of motherhood every day. Our employees are Mentor Mothers, women living with HIV who provide education and support to HIV-positive pregnant women and new mothers in sub-Saharan Africa.
The women who come to mothers2mothers are in crisis. Many are still stunned from a heartbreaking diagnosis, battling fear and emotional isolation. Often they are unaware that there is something they can do to protect their babies from HIV. Their story of motherhood is not going as they had planned.
I have been in their shoes. Before I came to work for mothers2mothers, I was a client of the program at a clinic in Cape Town, South Africa. When I learned that I was both pregnant and HIV-positive, just sharing my story with a Mentor Mother helped to lift some of the despair and loneliness I felt. When I joined a mothers2mothers support group and learned how to keep my baby free from HIV, I decided that my story was something that I would determine on my own. And when I gave birth to a healthy baby boy, I learned how important my story had become to women who, like me, were looking for a source of hope where there seemed to be none. Every time I told my story to a newly diagnosed pregnant woman, I felt my community of mothers grow stronger.
Mentor Mothers and Site Coordinators, who manage nearly 600 mothers2mothers sites in sub-Saharan Africa, have an important job as stewards of these stories, both their own and those of the women whose lives they have changed.
In September, with support from our partner Johnson & Johnson, I worked with a group of Site Coordinators to help prepare them to be spokespeople for mothers2mothers. They discovered that the most powerful way to demonstrate the impact of mothers2mothers is to share their own experiences – how mothers2mothers helped them overcome the fear and stigma of HIV, give birth to healthy children and become role models in their communities. They learned that even on an international stage, their stories of success are still the greatest gift they can give. Today, those women are sharing that gift wherever they go.
There is much work to be done if we are to meet the UNAIDS goal of eliminating mother-to-child transmission of HIV by 2015. There are funds to raise, partnerships to grow, and thousands of women we still need to reach with life-saving education and support. But just as new mothers take strength from the collective experience of those before them, as long as we keep sharing our stories of success, together we can tell the story of a new generation free from HIV.