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OPINION: South Africa’s 'Mentor Mothers' bring sunshine to people living with HIV

by Colile Mashaba | @SibiyaColile | Mothers2mothers
Sunday, 1 December 2019 08:00 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 opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

I hope that one day we will wake up to a world where children have access to the best healthcare and services and pray that our collective goal of an HIV-free generation is achieved

Colile Mashaba is a district coordinator at mothers2mothers, South Africa.

Four million children in South Africa and an estimated 17 million children across Africa have lost one or both parents due to AIDS in the last three decades.

I am from Mpumalanga, a province in South Africa whose name means “the place where the sun rises”. My job as a frontline healthcare worker is to be that ray of sunshine in the lives of orphans, vulnerable children, teens and young women in my community.

My own path wasn’t always an easy one. I was diagnosed with HIV at nineteen – 15 years ago.

I was shocked when my test came back positive, it felt like my life was over. It was a very dark period in my life. I struggled to come to terms with my status and once attempted taking my own life.

I disclosed to my partner. He insisted that I terminate the pregnancy and “go away with my AIDS”. That is the last time I heard from him.  

I was left to go through the pregnancy and take care of my baby boy on my own. I spent years without disclosing to my family in fear that they would also reject me. It was overwhelming and I felt like I was living in the shadows. But with the support of other mothers living with HIV that I was introduced to at mothers2mothers, I found both my voice and my calling. I decided to join the organisation as a “Mentor Mother” myself.  

More than 1 in 5 adults in my country are living with the virus. Yet it is incredibly difficult for many people in South Africa to access lifesaving healthcare. Only around half of HIV infected children in Mpumalanga are on medication[i], something I am working to change every day.

I see three reasons for this in my work:

Firstly, stigma and discrimination still exists. As community health workers we see this every day when we do home visits. Some households chase us away saying that “no one lives here with AIDS.”

Secondly, some parents haven’t told their children about their status. So, the children do not understand why they need to be on treatment and take a pill every day.

Thirdly, some parents refuse to accept a child’s status and will not let them access the treatment and services they need.  

We are currently working with a mother with three children, two girls and a boy aged 6, 9 and 12 years.  She has for the longest time refused to acknowledge their positive status. We have stepped in to provide educational and psychosocial support to the family and we have managed to enroll one child into a treatment programme.

This is a small win for us, and we continue to work with her and other families to ensure that vulnerable children receive the help they need to have a chance at life.

I recently disclosed my status to my eldest son, Musawenkosi, because he is an adolescent and I did not want him to make the same mistakes as me. It wasn’t easy but I knew it was the right thing to do. He now reminds me to take my medication and has become very overprotective often checking on me if I just cough or sneeze!

Our local mothers2mothers programme is called CHAMP – Children and Adolescents are My Priority. It is run by women like me—we are all living with HIV ourselves. We work hand in hand with health facilities, orphanages and other community organisations to identify children and families that need our help. We reach them at home, school, or in the clinics to make sure they get the health services and treatment they need, and that they remain in care.

I hope that one day we will wake up to a world where children have access to the best healthcare and services and pray that our collective goal of an HIV-free generation is achieved.

When I was diagnosed I was convinced I would not see five years. I am so proud of the woman I have become – I’m studying psychology and planning for the next 30 years. And, I have three beautiful, HIV-free children.

I know I cannot help 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. In this way, we are contributing to a new dawn for my beautiful country, South Africa. 

[i] Thembisa 4.1 (2018 PLHIV estimates & gross estimates of PLHIV on ART); PEPFAR FY18Q4 (finer age disaggreates of ART estimates]