Today, and every day, we celebrate the nearly 1,700 women mothers2mothers (m2m) employs as peer mentors, who work tirelessly to bring good health and wellbeing to hundreds of thousands of women and families across sub-Saharan Africa every year. One of these women is Paulina Hlazo, age 23, who is employed as a Peer Mentor at the Youth Alive project at the Nomzamo Clinic in Strand, a suburb of Cape Town, South Africa. Youth Alive, a project funded by Comic Relief, provides sexual and reproductive health education to adolescents and young women in a safe, youth-friendly environment. This education and support is critical in South Africa, and the sub-Saharan Africa region as a whole, where women and adolescent girls bear the brunt of the HIV pandemic. According to the South African National AIDS Council, HIV prevalence among young women is nearly four times greater than that of young men in the country.
Here is Paulina’s story.
I met m2m last year in March when I was at the clinic for family planning. During a health education talk, the m2m Mentor Mothers told us that as young women, we are at a higher risk of getting infected with HIV, especially if we have sexual relations with older men or multiple partners.
Even though I did not think of myself as being at high risk, I decided to get tested for HIV. I was so shocked when my results came back positive. My mouth felt dry and I could not even cry. My mind was racing with questions about how I would live from that point. My nurse said I should go see the Mentor Mothers again.
The Mentor Mothers taught me more about HIV and about the treatment I needed to take. They even offered to help me disclose to my mother. Before my diagnosis, my relationship with my mother was not the best. I was amazed when my mother told me she would always support me and that made it so much easier for me to take my treatment.
Even though I had all the support I needed from home, I still felt ashamed that I was living with HIV at such a young age. This changed when I joined the m2m support group. There, I met other young women living with HIV and we could talk for hours about the challenges we face and encourage each other to stay positive and take our treatment.
The Mentor Mothers also invited me and my mother to the parenting sessions. At the parenting sessions, we were taught about the importance of open communication, budgeting, and many other things. For example, we learned how to talk about money as a family. My mom would sit me and my sister down and tell us how much she earns and how much she plans to use on our needs. We shared duties—I would go buy groceries, my sister would buy electricity and our cosmetics, then my mom would tell us how much was left for the other things we want. I appreciated this because we started to differentiate between our needs and wants, and we would budget for our needs first and wants last.
In September last year I got a job as a Peer Mentor at m2m. My focus is on running educational sessions for adolescent girls and young women. What I love most about my job is that I have become a trusted big sister to my clients. Unlike the nurses I work with, I am almost the same age as my clients and that makes it much easier for them to open up to me about issues that they are not comfortable talking to adults about. They are able to tell me about when they started becoming sexually active and whether they are practicing safer sex. Together, we easily discuss ways to talk to their partners about safer sex and what they should do if they feel that their decisions are not respected by their partners.
When I talk to them, I make sure to make them feel like their opinions are valid and I help them make better choices in life. For example, one of my clients had a sugar daddy who does not want to use condoms. Together we sat and discussed what she stands to gain or lose from the relationship. In the end, she decided that while it was nice to be in a relationship with a mature person, she valued being in control of her life and that she was not getting that from the relationship so she left it. Had she been talking to an older person, maybe that decision would have been made for her but because I encouraged her and did not force her, she ended up making it by herself and I think she’s more likely to stick to it that way.
In addition, I remind my clients about the importance of staying in school and engaging in other youth activities to gain knowledge and wisdom. I encourage them to take up family planning so that they can enjoy their youth without worrying about being fully responsible for another human being. My clients really love it when I tell them that I also learn a lot from them. There are so many things that I have not personally experienced, and their experiences help me make better choices as well.
Sadly, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, my mother can no longer go to her job as a domestic worker. But we are very lucky that I have a job and that we learned the invaluable skills to communicate and budget better. I do the same thing my mother used to—I tell them how much I earn and we prioritise our needs. Now that my mom and I can talk about almost anything, I know that if I ever find myself in a situation I cannot get myself out of, I can talk to my mother about it without being afraid that she will react badly.