Looking at her, it is hard to imagine the pain she has gone through. The tall, young woman smiles, and confidently walks to the podium to deliver her speech.
“Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen. It is a pleasure for me to be here and share my story with you. My name is Violet Mbewe and I live in Lilongwe, the capital city of Malawi,” she begins telling her story to a gathering of global advocates on maternal, newborn and child health during the 69th session of the United Nations General Assembly hosted by Johnson and Johnson in New York, the United States.
“My aim is to educate fellow HIV positive women about the disease so that they make informed choices about their lives,” she says later on in an interview.
For Mbewe, being diagnosed HIV-positive at the age of 21 felt like a death sentence. At the time, she had one child and the news, she says, left her helpless and confused.
“My husband and I had decided to go for a test because he was getting sick frequently. We both tested positive, but I could not believe the results because I was not sick,” says Mbewe.
In her denial, coupled with fear of stigma, she and her husband decided not to tell their families.
Her fears were justified. A 2012 People Living with HIV and Aids (PLHIV) Index Malawi Country Assessment developed by Malawi Network of People Living with HIV and Aids (Manet+) indicates that 35.7 percent of PLHIV respondents said they were harassed while 33.7 percent reported being sidelined in social and family gatherings.
Mbewe says she did not have much information on HIV and Aids when she was diagnosed. At the clinic where the HIV test was conducted, she and her husband did not receive any information on how they could manage the virus and keep themselves healthy.
As a result, two years after testing positive, Mbewe got pregnant and later gave birth to their second child.
That was five years ago, and it marked a turning point for her.
“When our son was born, I convinced my husband about the need for us to disclose our HIV status to our families. He was very sick and I wanted to make sure that our baby would be taken care of if we died of Aids,” says Mbewe.
Although disclosing their status was a tough decision which was not well-received by some members of their families, Mbewe says it set her free.
Her husband died a few months after their son’s birth, and she is raising her two children on her own.
Mbewe is now an empowered woman who knows enough about living with HIV in a world that is full of stigma, yet she is bold enough to speak openly about it.
“It is important to disclose your status to people who understand your situation because you are able to share experiences and offer support to each other.
“If I had known what I know now about HIV when we were first diagnosed, I don’t think my husband would have died. My children would have a father today,” Mbewe says.
She has since taken up the role of mentor mother, running a mothers2mothers site at Bwaila Hospital in Lilongwe where she provides counselling and support to HIV positive pregnant women.
“I see so many young women who remind me of where I was nine years ago: pregnant, HIV positive, with no hope for the future. I encourage them not to give up and I educate and support them on how to prevent transmitting the virus to their babies and keep themselves healthy,” she explains.
Mbewe and the young women she meets as a mentor mother are lucky to get the information they need on how to manage HIV and prevent its transmission to their unborn babies. Many HIV positive youth in sub-Saharan Africa are not getting the help they need.
Data from the UNAids indicate that the prevalence of HIV in young people in sub-Saharan Africa is 2.3 percent, compared to a global average of 0.4 percent. It further says HIV is currently the leading cause of death among young people in Africa, with up to 40 percent of new HIV infections occurring in young people aged 15-24 years.
High HIV infection rates among women of reproductive age in sub-Saharan Africa put newborn babies at risk of contracting the virus from the mothers. According to mothers2mothers, each day, about 800 children are infected with HIV globally, and that 90 percent of these children are in sub-Saharan Africa. Most acquire HIV from their mothers during pregnancy, childbirth and breast feeding.
Mothers2mothers, an organisation that aims to put mothers at the centre of prevention of mother-to-child transmission (PMTCT) and reproductive, maternal, newborn and child health (RMNCH), is engaging governments to integrate the mentor mother model into health care systems.
The organisation trains, employs and empowers mothers living with HIV to provide health education and support to prevent the transmission of HIV from mothers to babies and improve health of women, their partners and families.
Mbewe has been a mentor mother since 2012. She says she got involved with mothers2mothers after a nurse told her about it.
“If I did not find mothers2mothers, I believe I would be dead by now. When I was diagnosed with HIV, I did not get any drugs or information about HIV. Fortunately, both my children are negative,” she says.
She commends mothers2mothers for the mentor mother programme, which she says is “empowering HIV positive mothers to live healthy and positive lives like I am today”.
According to her, PMTCT will help ensure an HIV-free generation in the near future.
Currently, 60 percent of women living with HIV in Malawi receive anti-retrovirals (ARVs) which are key in PMTCT, according to a UNAids report released in September 2013.
Earlier in 2012, UNAids estimates indicated that new HIV infections in children dropped by 43 percent, from 560 000 in 2002 to 330 000 in 2011.
Although this is a great improvement, there is still much to be done to fulfil the UN global plan that was launched in 2011 to eliminate paediatric Aids by 2015 and improve maternal health.
Since mothers2mothers started operations in Malawi, it has reached out to 74 000 HIV-positive women.