Last Thursday, mothers2mothers (m2m) headed to Washington, DC to celebrate a significant milestone in the fight against HIV/AIDS—the 15th anniversary of the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR). Joining m2m co-Founder Robin Smalley was one of m2m’s early clients and Mentor Mothers in South Africa, Babalwa Mbono, and her teenage daughter Anathi. It was an exciting day full of media interviews and a few stops at Washington, DC’s big sites, which culminated in an event at the Dirksen Senate building celebrating the U.S. government’s remarkable efforts to save and improve millions of lives around the world.
PEPFAR has been a game changer in the fight against HIV/AIDS. In the early 2000s, when the U.S. and other developed countries had achieved epidemic control and had almost entirely eliminated mother-to-child-transmission of HIV, an HIV diagnosis in Africa was still a death sentence. 15 years ago this month, with bi-partisan support under the leadership of President George W. Bush, PEPFAR was enacted and went on to become the largest commitment made by any nation to address a single disease. The U.S. government has since invested nearly $75 billion in the global HIV/AIDS response, ultimately saving more that 13 million lives and enabling more than 2.2 million babies to be born HIV-free.
For m2m, PEPFAR has been our largest and one of our longest standing funders for the last 14 years, helping us to expand our programme’s scale, scope, and impact across eight sub-Saharan African countries. Thanks to PEPFAR funding, m2m now provides services to address HIV across the life cycle—from babies and children to adolescents and families—to help control the epidemic for all populations. In addition, PEPFAR has supported m2m by providing technical assistance to the Kenyan and South African governments in implementing the Mentor Mother Model as national policy. That has enabled us to reach more people and have a greater impact beyond what we could have achieved alone—nearly 2 million individuals in 2016, together with our partners. For more on m2m’s partnership with PEPFAR, read a blog by m2m CEO’s Frank Beadle de Palomo.
Babalwa and Anathi shared their own experiences with HIV and the impact PEPFAR has had on their community in interviews on the ABC local affiliate’s Good Morning Washington and Voice of America’s “Africa 54,” its flagship African TV news show. Babalwa explained how she tested HIV-positive when pregnant with Anathi at a time when many mothers and babies were dying of AIDS. But with the support of mothers2mothers she was able to access treatment, keep herself healthy, and protect Anathi from infection. Babalwa reflected on how much has changed since those early days: “Remember, previous people didn’t have any information. Now people know about HIV, they can easily disclose to their families, stigma and discrimination has been reduced, and people are taking their treatment as they are supposed to. The mothers we are helping are having HIV negative babies.”
At their last stop of the day, PEPFAR’s 15-year celebration, Babalwa and Anathi joined Ambassador Deborah Birx, Coordinator of the United States Government Activities to Combat HIV/AIDS, and event co-sponsors Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation, WorldVision, and Johnson & Johnson. There were around 150 people in attendance—a mix of lawmakers, advisers, funders, fellow NGOs, and activists.
Among the speakers, m2m’s Robin Smalley thanked PEPFAR for its support through the years: “PEPFAR support was…a life-changer for all those being affected by HIV and AIDS. They recognised early on that women were one of Africa’s greatest untapped resources. They invested in our belief that HIV-positive mothers from local communities—Africa’s most marginalized population—could be educated, employed, and empowered to support underserved communities and health systems.”
Babalwa reminded everyone in the room of one of the biggest challenges to reaching the global goal of ending AIDS by 2030—the 7,000 adolescent girls and young women who are infected with HIV each week. Babalwa knows all too well the vulnerability of adolescent girls to HIV infection, having to worry about her teenage daughter making healthy choices and protecting herself from HIV. “I would like to thank PEPFAR and our partners for trying to save more lives,” said Babalwa. “We ask that you help us continue the journey. We are almost there. Look at this young girl next to me—I worked so hard to keep her HIV-negative when she was a baby, and it would be a tragedy if she were to be infected as an adolescent.”
With the continued commitment of PEPFAR and all of its amazing partners, m2m is confident we will be able to overcome the numerous challenges that lie ahead and create an HIV-free generation. Babalwa and Anathi are just one example of how PEPFAR has saved lives and created bright futures, and we are hopeful for another 15 years of success stories to come.
Read more about Babalwa and Anathi’s story here.