With the advent of the HIV epidemic in South Africa there was a lot of misinformation and social stigma that made people living with the virus feel ashamed, and in many instances left them living in fear. Since then, perceptions around HIV have changed dramatically. It is the work of organisations such as the non-profit, Mothers2mothers (M2M), that has advanced the plight of HIV-positive people, particularly women. M2M empowers and employs HIV-positive women.

36-year-old Colile Mashaba joined M2M 12 years ago. She had just found out that she was pregnant and HIV-positive. “I was still a teenager, and struggled to come to terms with my status. When I disclosed to my then boyfriend, he told me to terminate the pregnancy and to go away with my AIDS. That was the last time I heard from him. I was left to go through the pregnancy and take care of a child on my own. I spent years without disclosing to my family out of fear that they would also reject me. It took nearly five years for me to be able to tell them. When I finally did, things were not as bad as I had imagined they would be. My mother accepted me, and so did the rest of my family,” she told Health-e News.

Mashaba came across Mothers2mothers in 2009 when the organisation had just started working in Mpumalanga. She was fascinated by how they empowered women living with HIV and supported them to access healthcare. “This was an unusual sisterhood that I could really relate to. Even though I still had fears of disclosing my status, I also realised that Mothers2mothers could be the place where I could change my life. I decided to apply and was accepted. And then, in 2011, M2M supported me through my second pregnancy. What a difference it was to my first. All three of my children are HIV free,” she said.

M2M guides women from pregnancy until after they have given birth. They also ensure that those who are HIV negative remain that way, and those who are living with HIV begin the necessary treatment and stay on it.

Reaching  the youth

Mashaba’s personal experience with teenage pregnancy and HIV motivates the work she does on an M2M project known as CHAMP, which focuses on children and adolescents.

“I now also work with children and adolescents because I do not wish for any of them to face what I went through when I first found out my status. I want to help families support their children and help the children make better choices in life. I know that I cannot touch the lives of all children and adolescents in South Africa or even Mpumalanga. But my team and I will not stop until we have found every one of them in the communities we serve, ” she explained.

“My advice to any woman who is struggling to come to terms with their status is to remember that they are not alone. I want to encourage them to seek help at their clinic. Even if Mothers2Mothers does not work at the clinic, there are many other organisations that give support to people living with HIV. The first step is the courage to ask for help, and the rest will follow,” Mashaba advised.

Each one mentor one

M2M South Africa Country Director Shombi Ellis emphasized the importance of having mentor mothers share their experiences. “Our Mentor Mothers are role models in their communities, and lead by example. By sharing their lived experiences, they encourage other women to start on treatment and stay in care, and to access the vital health services at their local facility. They also educate clients and their families about health living positively,” said Ellis.

Ellis said the opportunities given to Mentor Mothers empower women to address socio-economic issues such as gender inequalities. “We have seen that when we invest in women, they in turn invest in themselves and their families to build a better future. Employment creates important economic empowerment opportunities for Mentor Mothers, helping to address gender inequalities that can make African women vulnerable to HIV and other health issues,” she added.

M2M has reached more than 12 million women and children under 2 years old and created over 11,000 jobs along the way. It can now also be found in 10 countries across sub-Saharan Africa. Ellis said M2M is strengthening community-led advocacy efforts, as it looks to increase the number of paid female community healthcare workers. – Health-e News