Last week, mothers2mothers (m2m) was out in full force at United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) gatherings in New York City. Our message was simple: African women have the power to unlock health and hope for themselves and their families – and m2m has demonstrated this over the past 15 years. The new U.S. strategy to combat HIV/AIDS (PEPFAR’s Epidemic Control Strategy)—launched last week—highlights six countries where “astounding results” have been achieved towards controlling their HIV/AIDS epidemics: m2m is working in five of these countries and is proud of having contributed to this progress. Now, we need the continued support of the international community and donors to drive further headway – particularly in the battle against HIV/AIDS among adolescent girls and young women. Globally, there are almost 7,000 new HIV infections every week among adolescent girls and young women aged 15-24 and most of them live in sub-Saharan Africa, a staggering statistic.
Delivering this message were four inspirational women: Peer Mentor Melody Mazibuko, a 26-year-old mother of three from Durban, South Africa, employed by m2m to work with adolescent girls and young women; Mentor Mother Relebohile Leoatha, 26 years old and a mother of two from the mountainous kingdom of Lesotho, who runs an m2m site serving women, adolescent girls, young women, and their families; and Mentor Mother and Trainer Babalwa Mbono from South Africa who was accompanied by her daughter, 14-year-old Anathi. They were joined in New York by Robin Smalley, m2m Co-founder, as well as our Board Members Colleen Hancock (Chief Operating Officer of Babycenter) and Donna Futterman (Director of the Adolescent AIDS Program at the Children’s Hospital at Montefiore).
Amid a flurry of speaking slots, media interviews, and networking events, a highlight of the week was when m2m joined forces with longtime partner Johnson & Johnson for a session titled “Real Voices, Real Stories: Moms, Teens, and Realities of HIV in a Changing World.” The session was moderated by international journalist Femi Oke, and explored the severe epidemic of HIV and AIDS among adolescent girls and young women, who accounted for nearly one-third of m2m’s clients last year.
In front of policymakers, politicians, and donors, Relebohile and Melody talked about their experiences and the challenges they had overcome after becoming pregnant and testing HIV-positive at a young age. The poverty that runs rampant in their communities, coupled with the lack of education about HIV and safe sex in schools, often drives young women to have transactional or intergenerational sex, leaving them vulnerable to contracting the virus. Relebohile and Melody stressed the importance of having mentors who the girls can see as peers to help provide them with the knowledge and tools needed to keep themselves healthy, regardless of their HIV status. Says Melody, “My dream is to make sure that all of the girls I work with as a Peer Mentor have the opportunity to enjoy their youth and never feel like they are alone in life, as I once did.”
Their stories were followed by a special conversation with Babalwa, one of m2m’s first clients, and her daughter Anathi with whom she was pregnant when she first came to m2m for help. Babalwa shared with the audience the struggle she has watching the baby she worked so hard to protect from HIV grow into a young woman, now making her own decisions that could impact her health. “There are so many challenges and temptations for her. When she was young, I could control what she did, who she played with, what risks she was exposed to. Now I can only stand on the side and watch, and pray.” Babalwa has transitioned from client to Mentor Mother, and is now a trainer for the next generation of Mentor Mothers. She knows all too well the importance of giving adolescent girls and young women more information about HIV, and encouraged parents to overcome the cultural norms to be more open with their children.
Lastly, Caroline Machini, a youth assistant from the Nzeve Deaf Children’s Centre, took to the stage to discuss with Femi the additional challenges that arise when working with adolescent girls and young women who have physical disabilities. Caroline works with deaf adolescents and equips them with vocational skills that empower them and help them avoid unhealthy relationships that may leave them vulnerable to HIV.
At all of the events that m2m’s Mentor Mothers participated in during UNGA week, one thing came across loud and clear—how passionate and committed these women are to making sure the adolescent girls, women, and families they serve stay healthy and thrive. It is this level of passion and commitment that is critical to achieve PEPFAR’s bold goal of controlling the HIV/AIDS epidemic in high-burden countries by 2020 and, ultimately, creating and HIV-free generation.