World AIDS Day: We must teach teenagers about sex

Thursday, 1 December 2016 01:00 GMT

Sanelisiwe Nkomo, a 22-year-old mother of three, became a peer mentor in KwaZulu-Natal after discovering she was HIV positive. Credit Karin Schembrucker

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

I was so shocked when my HIV test during an antenatal check up came back positive

Last year, when I was pregnant with my third child, my life was turned upside down.  I went to the clinic for an antenatal check up and I was asked to do an HIV test. Having already gone through two pregnancies and testing HIV negative both times, I was confident that I would still be negative.

I was so shocked and frustrated when the test came back positive, because I never thought I would be in that situation in my life. In my Zulu culture, children can’t approach their parents to talk about sex or HIV. It’s just not accepted.  But some families have different rules, and my family was different. My parents decided to educate their children about sex and HIV.  How do you tell your parents: yes … you have educated me. But I am HIV positive?

While all these thoughts were racing around my head, the nurse took me to see a mothers2mothers Mentor Mother – women trained and employed by the Africa-based NGO to support other women on HIV and other critical health issues. The Mentor Mother told me she too is HIV positive, and her children are negative, and she explained to me everything I needed to do to protect my baby from infection and keep myself and my family healthy.

The Mentor Mother also talked to me about how important it was to disclose my status to my family because that would make it easier for me to stay on treatment. My mother cried when I told her. I was too scared to tell my father, so I asked my mother to talk to him. I was surprised when he came to me and said, “You are in this situation. We can’t turn back the hands of time. And we need to deal with this as a family.”.

The way my family treated me was an eye opener that helped me to accept life as it is and it motivated me to apply for a job as a Peer Mentor when mothers2mothers was hiring earlier this year. 

An initiative funded through the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), Peer Mentors are young women, 20-24, who go into communities, schools, and homes to teach adolescent girls and young women about the importance of protecting themselves from HIV and pregnancy, and link them to health centres for medical care.

Unfortunately, the rates of pregnancy and HIV among adolescent girls and young women in my community are very high because there are no youth friendly services, and girls are afraid they will be judged if they go to the health clinic to ask for family planning or advice on safe sex.

Another big challenge in my community is that adolescent girls and young women come from poor backgrounds and that makes them vulnerable to older men who offer to buy them fancy things that they don’t have in their lives - like clothes, hairstyles, and gadgets - in exchange for sex. Often, girls only learn about consequences of these transactional relations – early pregnancy, HIV, and sexually transmitted infections - after they have become victims.

This is where the Peer Mentors come in. We empower them with information they can use to protect themselves. We teach them if you have started being sexually active, use protection, so you won’t be faced with an early pregnancy or be infected with HIV. Then we teach them to know their worth as a woman, and not let other people define it for you. If you know your worth, you have the power to say, “I don’t do that, I’m not worth a pair of jeans or a pair of shoes.”

I want these girls to have bright futures, be independent, strong women who are not influenced by the next person.  I want them to say that the Peer Mentors did that for me. And go on to become Peer Mentors and help more girls achieve their dreams.

As for me, one of my dreams came true: Almost a year ago, I gave birth to a lovely, HIV-negative daughter named Snothando which means ‘we have love’. I gave her that name because after everything her father and I have been through, we decided that we were not going to give up on us. We decided that we will raise the family we have created together. We have enough love to deal with our problems and be parents to all our children. My beautiful little girl is proof that our dream of an HIV generation can become a reality.

Sanelisiwe Nkomo, 22, is a peer mentor with mothers2mothers in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa