By NOZI SAMELA
Six years ago I sat in a clinic in South Africa, quietly considering the end of my life. I was 19 years old, pregnant, and I had just been told I had HIV.
The other day, as I stood in the U.S. Capitol before members of Congress to tell my story, I smiled as I thought about how far my journey has brought me.
Every day 1,000 babies in sub-Saharan Africa are born with HIV, compared to just one each day in the United States and Europe.
The painful cloud of stigma surrounding the HIV virus makes women afraid to ask for help. They fear for their lives and the lives of their children.
When I discovered I had HIV, my partner rejected me. I had already lost one cousin to AIDS, so I knew what it could do to a relationship, to a family, to a life. But I didn’t yet understand what it meant for my unborn child. As far as I could see, the future held nothing but sickness and death for me and for my baby.
I learned about mothers2mothers (m2m) from others at the clinic where I was tested. I realized I could not deal with the news of my status alone, so I began to attend an m2m support group with other HIV positive mothers – Mentor Mothers.
These women were not what I expected from HIV positive women; they were successful, healthy and beautiful. I couldn’t believe they were sick. They gave me strength and encouragement and taught me how to prevent transmission of the virus to my baby.
Many of the mothers had had experiences just like mine, and very soon I no longer felt alone in life. I felt empowered and inspired. Later that year, my beautiful son was born. He was tested for the HIV virus, and the results were negative.
Speaking before members of Congress reminded me of how very different my life would be today if not for the support of m2m. I would not have enrolled in their program, and my child might have been born with the HIV virus.
It saddens me to think about how many women never find lifesaving programs like mothers2mothers. Without intervention, as many as 40 percent of HIV-positive mothers will transmit the virus to their babies. Mother-to-child transmission of HIV/AIDS is preventable, and in the United States and Europe, it has been virtually eliminated.
mothers2mothers has given me courage to take a step forward in life and achieve my goals. I now work alongside the Mentor Mothers who saved my life, first as a Mentor Mother, and now as a full-time Communications Associate.
In 2008, I earned a National Higher Certificate in Accountancy from Cape Peninsula University of Technology, and today I am continuing my studies for my degree in accounting. Perhaps most importantly though, m2m empowered me to encourage other women to get tested, thereby securing a lifetime of health for themselves and their babies.
Just as m2m has been critical in my success, partners like Johnson & Johnson have been instrumental in the success of m2m. Johnson & Johnson has been more than a funder, they have led us to new and innovative ways to reach thousands of women living with HIV, just like me. Just last week a team of Mentor Mothers and I participated in a communications training session in South Africa. The experience empowered us all to tell our stories without fear, because that is how we reach other women in crisis and break the stigma of HIV.
My story is proof that we can stop the transmission of HIV from mothers to babies with the support and education that Mentor Mothers provide. There is a global consensus to strive toward eliminating new HIV infections among children by 2015 and keeping mothers alive. This is an important moment in the fight against HIV/AIDS – if we act now, we can make a generation free of HIV.
Nozi Samela is a communications associate for mothers2mothers at the head office in Cape Town, South Africa. Samela and her team, all HIV-positive women, provide crucial education and support to other HIV-positive women to prevent mother-to-child transmission of HIV.