“I am here to live, no matter the storms. I am standing here as a mother.”
~ Denise, HIV+ and mothers2mothers Mentor Mother
Advocates for mothers and their babies don’t come any more passionate or driven than Denise. When she tested positive for HIV ten years ago, her world came crashing apart. She was pregnant and terrified for her baby’s future. A mothers2mothers Mentor Mother was her lifeline to comfort, peace, and most importantly – an HIV free-baby. Her little girl is now almost 10 and last year Denise gave birth to her second child, who is also HIV-free.
Mother-to-child transmission of HIV is almost entirely preventable. It takes education, medication and commitment. Denise and her colleagues now mentor several thousand mothers each year in a community just outside of Cape Town. She works with newly diagnosed pregnant women and walks with them every step of the way. “We come in at the beginning, we are there for the treatment and we are there at the end.”
Of her own mentor, Denise says, “I found a sister, a mother and a friend to pour out my heart to.” Now she does the same for others. “Each morning I introduce myself to pregnant women. I don’t know their status. I talk to them, I tell my story. I’m here to encourage them on the importance of being tested. (If they test positive) they come from the nurse crying.” Denise embraces them, “I’m here to listen. I am not here to judge you – I am here to listen to your heart.”
For these women there are life-altering questions to be answered. Will I have a roof over my head after today? Can I still depend on my partner for food, shelter and clothing? Will I be safe from violence and abuse? Those fears are very real.
One woman (name withheld), a newly minted college student went to another city to finish her education. In a few short months she was home, pregnant and HIV-positive. “Denise has taught me a lot. She has taught me not to be scared – it’s not the end of the world. If my boyfriend isn’t going to be there for me, I must stand up for myself and take care of my child. I am strong, I have experienced a lot, I can handle what ever comes, even if my baby tests positive.” So far her newborn is HIV-free. She was waiting for a second round of testing that would confirm his status. She is breastfeeding and her premature three-week-old is beginning to thrive. Being strong is a theme echoed by clients and Mentor Mothers over and over.
Viora just started in September as a Mentor Mother with mothers2mothers. She found out her status in 2008 and also has two children who are HIV-free. “When I found out, they sent me straight to Denise. I was very scared to test my baby but the baby was negative… This year I applied to become a Mentor Mother – I can do this, I can help and educate other mothers. It’s tough work – I’ve met mothers crying and blaming, but once they leave, they are smiling.” She adds, “we are women and we have to be strong.”
For Gloria it was 2011 that she discovered she was HIV-positive. “I was very sick and scared and, even though I’d had no other partners, my husband was negative.* We have managed to stay together. My baby is now three and she is healthy and fine. I just bring her here for vaccines and checkups.” Gloria also became a Mentor Mother recently. “You can be HIV-positive and give birth to an HIV-negative child. You can live a better life. It is not going to change your destiny if you follow the protocol (for treatment).”
mothers2mothers operates collaboratively with the South African ministry of health and on their own in a total of 253 locations around the country. Together, almost 500 Mentor Mothers enrolled over 100,00 new women into the program – close to 40,000 of whom are HIV positive. In addition, mothers2mothers operates in Kenya, Swaziland, Lesotho, Uganda, and Malawi. Last year they reached 484,600 women in six countries, including 100,500 HIV-positive women in sites that they operate directly.
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mothers2mothers operates at a heart-to-heart level, changing lives one mother at a time. Learn more about their powerful work at m2m.org and find them on Facebook and Twitter. You can learn more about Denise by watching and sharing this video.
In Denise’s own words, “We hold our hands together and we love together and cry together. We must be strong and we must have hope – if you have those things you can survive.”
* The HIV virus can often take longer to show in males than females.
Chrysula Winegar spent a day with mentor mothers and some of their clients in a community health clinic outside of Cape Town last month. Names of clients and their babies have been withheld. Photos courtesy of mothers2mothers.