Young women in South Africa contract HIV at rates four times higher than young men; many are also pregnant when learning their HIV status.
Velna Malobola knows how shattering that diagnosis can be.
At 18, Malobola had dropped out of school and married her boyfriend when she became pregnant. Asked to take an HIV test at the clinic, she was devastated when the result was positive. Feeling that she too had disappointed her family like her three older sisters who were already living with HIV, Malobola felt completely alone.
As a mothers2mothers (m2m) peer mentor, she shares her story with the young women she works with and how meeting an m2m Mentor Mother changed her life.
“My Mentor Mother helped me come to terms with my HIV status and provided me with the unconditional support I needed to live a healthier life for the sake of my unborn baby,” recalls Malobola.
Mentor Mothers are women living with HIV employed by m2m as community health workers to educate and support women and their families to access healthcare, start treatment and stay in care.
With support from her Mentor Mother, Malobola managed to disclose her HIV status to her mother. After disowning Malobola initially, they have since reconciled and her mother and is now her biggest champion. Malobola followed the prescribed treatment and her son was born HIV negative. Her second son, born two years later, is also HIV negative.
In 2012, Malobola joined m2m as a Mentor Mother herself. “I wanted to support other mothers who were going through the same journey as me and to share my experience about what I went through. It doesn’t mean that because you are HIV positive you have to stop dreaming.”
Since joining m2m, Malobola managed to get out of her abusive marriage, went back to school to complete high school and enrolled in university to get a teaching degree, all while raising two children on her own.
In addition to reaching millions of women and children with life-changing health services and achieving virtual elimination of mother-to-child transmission of HIV among their clients, m2m has employed more than 11,000 women living with HIV, helping to create economic wellbeing for women who are often marginalized.
The stigma surrounding HIV can make it difficult for adolescents and young women to get tested and access treatment, says Malobola. It can also make them afraid to disclose their status to their families. As an m2m worker, she faces stigma herself which she describes as the most challenging part of her job. “But the most exciting part is that we get to support our clients, educating them on how to deal with stigma. In some cases, I have to show them my clinic card to prove to them that I am living with HIV. This small action wins them over.”
South Africa has the highest number of people living with HIV in the world, and its prevalence among women aged 10-19 is particularly acute. With poverty and unemployment rampant in her community, Malobola sees young women turning to older men, a group with high HIV prevalence, who shower them with gifts and expect unprotected sex. Malobola wants to help break this cycle.
Since 2017, Malobola has been working as an m2m peer mentor providing sexual and reproductive health education to adolescents and young women. She runs support clubs to encourage young girls to stay in school and make healthy choices.
“They open up to me because we are closer in age and I come from the same community,” says Malobola. “We speak the same language and they know that even if I am not at work, they can come to my place to talk to me. We are like sisters.”
With COVID-19 spreading across South Africa, Malobola and other m2m Mentor Mothers have had to adapt their approach. As household visits are no longer safe, she uses WhatsApp and phone calls to make sure her clients living with HIV who are immunocompromised like herself adhere to their medication and protect themselves from getting infected. Many clients are afraid to go to the clinic due to COVID-19, she says, and need her encouragement and reminders to go refill their medications, get their children immunized, and do what is best for their health.
Mentor Mothers have become especially valuable as “essential workers” during COVID-19. m2m’s decades of experience fighting the HIV/AIDS pandemic and close ties to communities uniquely positions the organization to provide access to education and services during this pandemic.
“It is thanks to m2m that I am the strong woman that I am today,” says Malobola. By giving her employment, m2m made it possible for her to go back to school and take care of her children.
COVID-19 has delayed her final year of university but she hopes to graduate next year and begin teaching. And that is only the next step. Her real dream is to become a psychologist and have a practice of her own.
At 33, Malobola is just getting started.
For almost 16 years, the Johnson & Johnson Foundation has been partnering with Mothers2Mothers to support the empowerment of Mentor Mothers across nine sub-Saharan countries.