BY TATENDA CHIMBWANDA
BULAWAYO, Zimbabwe- Young mothers and new friends, Zelifa Dube (20) and Melisa Mpofu (19) both dropped out of school in their early teens. They live in Plumtree, a small agricultural town in southwestern Zimbabwe, on the border with Botswana. At 85 per cent, poverty prevalence in the community is rife and the incidence of teenage pregnancy and HIV infection is high. Zelifa and Melisa first met and bonded at a UNICEF-supported Young Mentor Mother training workshop in Bulawayo, designed to provide enhanced care and support for vulnerable pregnant and breastfeeding adolescent and young mothers living with HIV and their HIV exposed babies.
Born with HIV, Zelifa has struggled her whole life to accept her status. “I was only ten-years-old when l was told l was HIV positive and l had no idea what that meant, until the Community Adolescent Treatment Supporter (CATs) training. l used to think ARV [anti-retroviral] pills were for a headache,” she reminisced. “l now know what adherence is, and l am aware of the medication I am taking.” In order for Zelifa and the rest of the young mothers to participate in the YMM training, they had to have trained as Community Adolescent Treatment Supporter (CATs). The CATs programme is a model of differentiated service delivery for HIV positive children and adolescents which is led by trained, mentored HIV positive adolescents and young people. The YMM intervention layers on to the existing CATS implemented by Africaid a local NGO.
This training has just been so emotional for me
Zelifa continued “l cannot believe [that] the people training us [would hold] my daughter. No one holds her or plays with her back home besides myself. My family is scared of holding her: they think they will get HIV/AIDS if they hold my baby. What l have enjoyed about this training is meeting other mothers like myself.
The YMM training is a component of “2gether 4SRHR” a joint initiative, started in January 2018 and supported by UNICEF, WHO, UNFPA and UNAIDS, with generous funding from the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA) which aims to address HIV, gender-based violence and sexual reproductive health issues facing young mothers in Zimbabwe.
The YMM training itself is being implemented by the local NGO Africaid. Its project coordinator, Evelyne Sibanda says, “We hope to improve virological suppression among pregnant and breastfeeding adolescents living with HIV, and decrease mother to child transmission of HIV and syphilis through the Young Mentor Mothers-led intervention.” One of key message the program facilitators delivered through the YMM training was that young mothers living with HIV can give birth to HIV negative babies. In addition, mothers who participate will also have access to individual counselling, SRH related services such as family planning; nutrition; prevention and management of gender-based violence; and education on parenting.
Through the YMM programme, Zelifa will receive a monthly stipend for mentoring young mothers in her community. She will also receive a bicycle to enable follow up of peers in the community and a mobile phone to stay in touch with other mentors and the mothers she will be helping. She will also use the mobile phone to capture data and submit real-time data to project mentors and the Ministry of Health and Child Care (MoHCC).
Zelifa’s story strongly resonates with Melisa, whom she met for the first time at the workshop.
Like Zelifa, Melisa has a two-year-old child who also tested HIV negative. “It has been a long journey for me, ever since l had my son when l was 17 l have been treated like damaged goods in my community,” recalls Melisa. Before the CATs and YMM training, she felt depressed and without any support
l feel so happy, confident and comfortable now.
Sitting together, the young mothers at the Bulawayo training event who were nervous and timid when they arrived at the start of the event, are animated and speak with confidence. Said Melisa, “My favorite part of the training was the role-playing we did, on how we would talk to other mothers. l am so happy that l can lead other women with my child with me. Just being part of this training has made me feel very important.”
Zelifa nods in agreement. “The YMM training has empowered me with knowledge about living positively with HIV as a young mother,” she said. “I now understand how l can be the best mother to my daughter and keep her viral load low. I have just learnt so much and l feel so confident to go and share my knowledge with other young mothers like myself in Plumtree. Most importantly, l have made lifelong friends, with shared experiences as mine. l no longer feel alone.”
Fourteen mothers from Bulilima and Mangwe districts were trained to become young mentor mothers at the three-day Bulawayo workshop which was facilitated health workers from Zimbabwe’s Ministry of Health and Child Care and Africaid.
In 2018, similar training was conducted for three other districts, Buhera, Hopley (Harare) and Hurungwe giving a total of 48 young mentors who will counsel and support 960 HIV positive mothers and their children in five targeted districts. the whole country. The training will be rolled out in an additional eight districts in 2019.