mothers2mothers: Eliminate Pediatric AIDS by 2015
Anne-Marie and Audrey van Petegem met Robin Smalley, Director and Co-Founder of mothers2mothers, at BlogHer 2011 in the Johnson&Johnson room. She shared stories of the women and the babies that mothers2mothers helps, the role that Johnson&Johnson plays in financially supporting global health issues and the bright future for women with HIV and their children. The energy, passion and dedication that Robin has towards these women and their babies is nothing short of being heroic. She found her true calling after she left the high profile world of being an award-winning television director/producer for shows such as Entertainment Tonight, Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous and others. It just shows when one finds their passion they can truly make a difference. Here is her story…
By Robin Smalley, Director and Co-Founder of mothers2mothers
I’m a mom of two daughters, now both in college. I’m embarrassed to say that throughout the years we’ve all-too-often taken turns whining, “That’s not fair!” But it wasn’t until I gave up my television career, and moved my family halfway around the world to South Africa in 2004 to begin an organization called mothers2mothers, that I realized what unfair truly means.
Did you know there are more babies born with HIV per year in a single African clinic than in the U.S. and Europe combined? Most people assume that if a mother is HIV-positive, she’s going to infect her unborn child. But that’s simply not true. There are tests and drugs that can be given to mothers to prevent them from infecting their babies and to stay healthy themselves. All these sick babies, all these heart-broken mothers, dealing with something that is entirely preventable. Why?
The fact is, most medical systems in Africa are broken. There are very few doctors and everything is run by nurses that are overwhelmed, overstressed and underpaid. There isn’t a moment for care or support or education. I’ll give you an example. Here in the U.S. where we have a nursing “shortage,” we have 256 doctors and 937 nurses for every 100,000 people. In Mozambique there are 3 doctors and 21 nurses for every 100,000.
Coupled with terrible stigma and discrimination over HIV and you have a situation where a young pregnant woman, full of joy over the new life growing inside her, tests positive for HIV and there is no one in the clinic to tell her that she can prevent transmission of the virus to her unborn baby. And so she leaves the clinic, never to return again, returning home in fear and isolation, with a death sentence that she is terrified to share.
mothers2mothers provides a simple solution to a complex problem, employing and training mothers living with HIV to work alongside doctors and nurses, bringing critical information and support to pregnant women and new HIV-positive mothers. These “Mentor Mothers” educate, support, and empower women with HIV to keep themselves and their children healthy, forming trusting relationships within frightening, unfamiliar health care systems.
So now picture the above scenario…a young woman comes in. She may have walked miles from her cardboard shack where she has no plumbing or electricity. She may not have eaten that day. Now she finds she is HIV-positive. And just when her life goes dark, immediately a Mentor Mother is there to hold her hand and put her arm around her and say “You’re not alone. I’m HIV-positive too, and my baby was born negative. It can be the same for you.” She is taken to the mothers2mothers room, and she is surrounded by women just like her. And there she can learn everything she needs to make healthy choices for herself and her baby. She can learn about the medical interventions available, about her feeding options, reproductive health, family planning, nutrition. Her Mentor Mother can support her as she rounds up her courage to disclose her status to her partner and family, often risking beatings or being outcast. And she is there to celebrate with her when her baby tests negative.
We pay our Mentor Mothers. Now that may not seem earth-shattering to most of us, but in Africa where women are accustomed to being treated as if they have no value, it is a game-changer. The simple fact of getting paid transforms Mentor Mothers into role models in their townships and villages and helps them turn around stigma one mother at a time.
I have been blessed to see this miracle happen over and over again. This month mothers2mothers is celebrating its tenth anniversary. We began with a few credit cards, operating out of a car in Cape Town. Today we have almost 700 sites in eight countries. And we employ over 1700 HIV-positive mothers. They are reaching 1 in every 5 pregnant women living with HIV in the world.
It’s been an incredibly rewarding journey for me, an ex-television director who never could have imagined finding my passion on the other side of the world. But the really exciting part begins now. Because we are one of the partners in UNAIDS’ Global Plan to Eliminate New Infections of HIV by 2015 and keep mothers alive. Yes, you read right…we can eliminate pediatric AIDS in the next three years! We, one mother at a time, can support the mothers who need our help so desperately. What a legacy we can leave our children…a generation free of HIV/AIDS!
I look at my beautiful girls and I still see the babies they were. I can imagine how I would have felt if I felt responsible for passing on a death sentence. I know that, only by the luck of birth, my daughters were born in a top-notch American hospital. They have been raised free from the scepter of death and despair. Together, we can give that gift to other mothers and children. Please join me at mothers2mothers and see the many ways you can help.