Why we teenage girls are key to S. Africa’s fight to end HIV

by Anathi Mbono | Mothers2mothers
Saturday, 1 December 2018 09:00 GMT

ARCHIVE PHOTO: Children run past a mural painting of an Aids ribbon at a school in Khutsong Township, 74 km (46 miles) west of Johannesburg, August 22, 2011. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko

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* Any views expressed in this article are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

If you are HIV-positive, you can live a healthy, normal life

Anathi Mbono is an HIV activist 

Being a teenager is hard. One moment you are told you are too young to make your own decisions, the next that you are too old to not know what to do. We are often told what to do, but rarely are we asked how we feel. Now imagine being a teenage girl in South Africa, my home country, where every week almost 2,000 young women aged 15–24 years contract HIV - two and a half times the rate of HIV infections among boys our age.

To mark today’s 30th World AIDS Day, I want to help raise the voices of girls in South Africa, and across the African continent. We are at the fore of the HIV epidemic. HIV-positive young women are my friends and neighbours - and I could have been one of them.

I found out my mother was HIV-positive one morning when she sat me down and broke the news. I was 13 years old. It was hard to take it in at first as I was worried she was going to die and leave me alone. She told me how she had been diagnosed as HIV-positive while pregnant with me, and how she fought to keep me HIV-free.

She went to support groups organised by mothers2mothers (a charity that employs HIV-positive women as health workers) despite the huge stigma that surrounded HIV in South Africa at that time. She insisted on getting the medication and education she needed to keep me healthy and after I was born, she proudly became one of the charity’s Mentor Mothers to support other women walking the same path as her. In this way—and in many others—she has dedicated her life to ensuring I have a bright future. It is now my responsibility to ensure my mum’s efforts weren’t in vain.

Her role as a peer mentor and trainer means that she is very informed about HIV and other health issues. She provides vital services and information to young pregnant women and their families in our community trains the next generation of Mentor Mothers. I can always rely on her whenever I need information. But not everyone has this opportunity.

Knowledge about HIV is still severely lacking and the difficult realities of living in townships and poor communities means that girls as young as 15 years old engage in transactional sex. They change their morals and manners to fit in, and date older men, sometimes as old as their dads, who take them to fancy places and buy them expensive things. Often, they can no longer say no to unprotected sex and as a result double their chances of contracting HIV - young women in sub-Saharan Africa who have practiced transactional sex are 50% more likely to have HIV than young women who have never engaged in transitional sex

I am lucky to have this knowledge about HIV and have made it my business to educate my friends and peers at school. I found out that some of them are sexually active and how little they know. One friend confessed to me she was worried she might have HIV because she had slept with an older man. We chatted with a Mentor Mother together and decided to go and get tested. It was the right move and we were reassured that we were healthy.

The other kids at school started treating me differently when they learned of my mother’s status, which hurt. I spoke to my mother and got counselling on how to deal with the stigma. I realised that their reaction stemmed from a lack of information so I started sharing what I had learned through the school’s drama group, and their attitudes slowly changed.

So, to fellow teenage girls, I want to say this: you can be in control of your life, your body and your health choices. You can access all the information you need. If you are HIV-positive, you can live a healthy, normal life; If you are HIV-negative, find out how you can keep it that way.

We can’t do this alone though. We need the support of our parents, teachers, and leaders. Let’s all stand together and ensure that World AIDS Day in 30 years is a celebration of how we turned the tide of the epidemic and kept a vulnerable generation of young women HIV-free.