By Frank Beadle de Palomo, President and CEO of mothers2mothers
Underpinning the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is a pledge that no-one will be left behind in global efforts to create peace and prosperity for people and the planet. This pledge drives mothers2mothers (m2m) to reach the most vulnerable and marginalised populations with our services. Over the coming year, we will explore how m2m is making sure that no-one is left behind, particularly when it comes to the SDGs of creating good health and wellbeing for all (which includes a target to end the AIDS epidemic by 2030), and achieving gender equality.
We begin our journey with Velna Malobola in Shoshanguve, South Africa. Shoshanguve is a township about 30 kilometres north of Pretoria. Velna was 18 years old and pregnant when she tested positive for HIV. “I was devastated. I felt like I had disappointed my mother who had big dreams for me, and I worried how I would be able to find a job with HIV and support my child. So I kept the news to myself. It was hard because I needed someone to talk to, but I could not open up to my family,” she recalls.
Fortunately for Velna, she would not be alone for long. The nurse sent her to meet Mentor Mothers working at her clinic. These are women living with HIV who are employed by m2m as frontline health workers through our peer-based model to support women and families to access vital health services.
The Mentor Mothers told Velna an HIV diagnosis was not the end of the world, and shared their own journeys of coming to terms with their HIV status and keeping themselves healthy. They supported her to access and stay on the treatment that kept her baby HIV-free. And when Velna’s family shunned her after learning about her HIV status, the Mentor Mothers helped her find the strength and courage to educate them about HIV so they could accept her status.
Stories like Velna’s have been repeated millions of times over at m2m. Since our founding in 2001, m2m Mentor Mothers have reached more than 11 million women and children. As with Velna and her baby, we are delivering on our original goal of eliminating paediatric HIV. For the past five years, m2m has achieved virtual elimination of mother-to-child transmission of HIV among our clients, with a transmission rate of only 1.3% in 2018, far below the United Nations benchmark of 5%.
Ending HIV is Just the Start
But today, we know that to end AIDS for good, it is not enough to stop the transmission of HIV. We must also make sure no-one is left behind in accessing vital health services—especially populations most vulnerable to HIV, including women, children, and adolescents. By promoting overall health and wellbeing for all, m2m is helping women and families to become more resilient, so they have the power to make healthy choices and overcome challenges that can cause vulnerability to HIV such as poverty, stigma, and gender inequality. Our goal is to make healthy, thriving communities the new normal in sub-Saharan Africa. Only then can we create a truly HIV-free generation.
How is m2m doing that? We have evolved our tried and tested model to tackle a range of health-related challenges for women, children, and adolescents, while creating economic empowerment opportunities. Our work now includes:
Finishing the Job on Paediatric HIV: While tremendous progress has been made to reduce mother-to-child transmission of HIV, almost 400 children still contract HIV each day in sub-Saharan Africa. m2m is working to reach more women and children with quality services designed to prevent mother-to-child transmission of HIV during pregnancy and breastfeeding, and to keep families healthy.
Ensuring Women and Children Thrive, not Just Survive: Our model builds strong relationships between Mentor Mothers and the families they serve. We are leveraging this to make sure women and children are healthy and have the best possible opportunities in life—that families thrive, not just survive. That’s why we provide services and referrals to HIV-positive and negative pregnant women to ensure a healthy pregnancy, childbirth, and postnatal care. We educate, support, and refer our clients to access essential health services, including sexual and reproductive health (SRH) and family planning, HIV testing, and screening for malaria and tuberculosis. We also provide integrated early childhood development support to families as part of our service package.
Supporting Adolescents to Make Healthy Choices: With around 6,000 adolescent girls and young women infected with HIV each week globally, it is critical to reach this vulnerable population to make sure they access vital health services. Our dedicated services for adolescents and their families are ensuring those who are HIV-negative have the tools and skills they need to stay HIV-free, those who are HIV-positive get on treatment and lead healthy lives, and that all young people get the facts they need about SRH to allow them to shape their own destiny.
Creating Opportunities for Economic Empowerment: m2m’s impact does not stop with our clients. We are improving the financial wellbeing and food security of women and families by providing services to strengthen financial literacy and create opportunities for income-generating activities, including Village Savings and Loans Associations. In addition, m2m employs and pays women living with HIV, which has a direct economic impact on families and communities. Since we began, m2m has employed more than 10,000 women living with HIV as Mentor Mothers.
Velna embodies the resilience that we are working to foster in all of our clients. She no longer feels powerless and alone. Instead, she is a confident woman who is writing her own future. After overcoming her challenges of living with HIV, she applied for a job as an m2m peer mentor so she could make sure that adolescent girls and young women in her community are not left behind and support them to make healthy choices.
As a peer mentor, she teaches her clients about contraceptives, HIV, and sexually transmitted infections (STI) testing, and helps them ask for what they need from the clinic without feeling embarrassed or judged. For her clients living with HIV, she supports them to disclose their status and makes sure they stay on treatment and test their children for HIV. She also runs Moms Clubs in the community, where she teaches young pregnant women and new mothers life skills that can help them find work or start small businesses that will generate income.
What’s more, the job also enables her to provide for her two sons, who are both HIV-free. “This is my time to be that pillar of strength for the adolescent girls and young women in my community. I am now a mentor to other young women, helping them achieve great results. I am proud to be creating bright futures—not only for my clients, but also for myself and my family,” she says.
Ending HIV is just the start….