When Babalwa Mbono tested positive for HIV in Cape Town, South Africa, 15 years ago, she saw it as a death sentence for herself and the child she was carrying.
“The people with HIV were scared to come out in the open at that time. There was so much stigma and discrimination. You would be chased away and could not mix with people for fear of giving them HIV,” Mbono said.
Fifteen years later, she and her healthy HIV-negative daughter, Anathi, were in Washington on May 17 sharing their story and celebrating with the organization that they credit for saving so many lives: the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR).
Mbono’s daughter was born healthy because after her diagnosis Mbono was referred to “mothers2mothers,” a U.S.-based program that trains women to help HIV-infected mothers and their families. PEPFAR, the U.S.-backed initiative to combat AIDS, is a primary funder of the program.
“I didn’t have any information about HIV. I was so afraid and I didn’t know what to do. I thought the baby would die,” she said. Mbono was matched with a “Mentor Mother” from mothers2mothers. “She comforted me and advocated for me to get HIV treatment, which she told me would prevent my baby from getting HIV,” Mbono said.
“I then felt that life was back again. I will live.”
~ Babalwa Mbono
To date, PEPFAR has saved more than 14 million lives and prevented HIV infection in 2.2 million babies born to HIV-infected mothers. Despite the successes in combating HIV infections, nearly 7,000 adolescent girls and young women in sub-Saharan Africa are infected with HIV each week.
To combat that trend, mothers2mothers has developed programs for adolescents, including hiring younger peer mentors and delivering services in youth-friendly spaces such as schools and youth clubs, said Robin Smalley, co-founder of the organization.
Mbono went from getting help from a mothers2mother mentor to becoming a mentor herself. Today she travels throughout South Africa, training other mentors to help HIV-infected mothers. Her daughter, Anathi, is becoming a mentor for young people to provide them with information on how to lead a healthy, HIV-free life. “Teens need a peer mentor to open up and share their stories,” Anathi said.
Before PEPFAR, “most babies were dying. Mothers were dying. Every weekend there were funerals after funerals after funerals of babies that had died of HIV,” Mbono said. “With PEPFAR, things have changed. No more babies dying and mothers are living their whole life. We’ve worked hard to get to where we are today and save girls like Anathi. Don’t get tired. Keep us HIV-free.”