Young, pregnant and HIV positive. It’s a situation many women in sub-Saharan Africa found themselves in during the course of the AIDS epidemic. But since 2001, a program called Mentor Mothers has helped about one million women not only survive, but thrive.
“Mothers2Mothers came about because we recognized there was an enormous gap in services in healthcare in the developing world, particularly in Africa – and particularly around pregnant women and birth,” said Robin Smalley, co-founder and international director.
Too often, she says, a time of joy became a time of dread.
“A young woman would come in. She’d come in for her first pregnancy test. In Africa, that tends to be around five months. At that time she’s offered her first HIV test. She’s like young mothers everywhere. She’s excited. She’s full of joy. She never anticipates anything going wrong. So when that test comes back positive she thinks it’s a death sentence for herself and for her baby. And there’s nobody available to tell her that there is medical intervention available to help her prevent transmission to her child. And so she goes home. She never seeks medical care again because of the terrible stigmas in the community,” she said.
Healthcare systems and personnel were initially overwhelmed by the HIV/AIDS epidemic, and little time was available to counsel young pregnant women.
Smalley and her co-founder, Dr. Mitch Besser, an OBGYN, came up with the idea of the Mentor Mothers program. What better resource for the program, she said, than the women themselves?
“Let’s just take newly delivered moms, who are HIV positive, put them through a rigorous training, send them back into their own clinics as what we call Mentor Mothers. Pay them for their work, and let them address this service, and that’s what’s happened. Now when a young woman comes in and gets this devastating diagnosis, a mentor Mother is called, who can put her arms around her, hold her hand, who can say you’re not alone. I’m positive, too. And we’re going to get through this together,” she said.
Smalley said women undergo positive changes after joining the Mentor Mothers program.
“They become different people. Their heads are held high. They’ll be wearing T-shirts that say HIV Positive. They’re speaking out in their churches and in their schools and in their townships. They become role models in their community,” she said.
Mothers2Mothers also plays a big role in the UNAIDS-sponsored campaign to end pediatric AIDS in the near future.
“Now we have this urgency. We’re looking at 2015. My God, we can actually in the next few years make it a world where no baby has to be born facing this devastating life-long illness. It’s so exciting,” said Smalley.
The greater availability and lower prices of antiretroviral drugs has made this possible.
Mothers2Mothers now operates about 600 clinics in seven countries. It used to be nine countries, but it was so successful two governments took over the program as part of their own health system.
The program employs 1,500 HIV positive women. About 60 percent of the organization’s funding comes from USAID and PEPFAR, the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief.