Shaking the Disease
By Arrissia Owen
When the non-governmental organization (NGO) mothers2mothers (M2M) began its mission in 2001 to prevent mother-to-child transmission of HIV/AIDS in Sub-Saharan Africa, there was no signage on the clinic doors. Much of the organization’s energies went to protecting the anonymity of its patients and workers due to the stigma associated with what is sometimes perceived as a death sentence.
M2M trains HIV-diagnosed mothers who are managing the disease through antiretroviral (ARV) drugs to teach other newly diagnosed pregnant women, along with healthcare workers, how to prevent transmission of the disease during pregnancy. They’ve come a long way, baby, and helped put a dent in the shortage of healthcare professionals tackling the epidemic in Africa.
“Now our mothers proudly wear uniforms of their own choice, whether aprons emblazoned with the logo or T-shirts,” says M2M co-founder and international director Robin Smalley.
The mentor-mothers work in the communities where they reside. As liaisons they build trust between patients and healthcare teams, making it more likely pregnant women will be tested and treated.
M2M and INJAZ al-Arab, another NGO nonprofit that is an Arab educational mentoring program, are recipients of this year’s seventh annual Henry R. Kravis Prize in Leadership through Claremont McKenna College. Both organizations empower historically underserved populations in their respective regions.
On March 20, INJAZ al-Arab regional director Soraya Salti and M2M’s Robin Smalley are scheduled to accept the awards for their organizations. The Kravis award recognizes extraordinary leadership in the nonprofit sector. This is the first year two recipients will receive the $250,000 award.
INJAZ al-Arab recruits successful Arab business leaders as mentors to inspire a culture of entrepreneurialism and business innovation among Middle Eastern and North African youth. Since its inception in 2004, INJAZ al-Arab programs have reached more than 500,000 students and engaged 10,000 volunteers.
M2M has helped more than a million women during the last decade, growing from one site in Cape Town, South Africa to nearly 600 sites in seven sub-Saharan African countries.
About 90 percent of the world’s pregnant women with HIV live in Africa, and nearly 1,000 babies are born there every day with the disease. With proper treatment though, mother-to-baby transmission is almost entirely preventable.
Interventions like HIV testing, education and safe and effective medications can reduce the risk of mother-to-child transmission from 40 percent to less than 5 percent, plus keep the mothers alive to raise the children. The biggest roadblock is the stigma attached to the disease. Many women once diagnosed face rejection by their child’s father and communities.
Thanks to M2M, the climate of fear that surrounds diagnosis is changing. The impact of the program has attracted attention from Beyoncé, Annie Lennox and Elton John to then-Sen. Barack Obama and former First Lady Laura Bush.
Bush was instrumental in introducing the program and model to policymakers in Washington, D.C., many of whom were unaware that mother-to-child transmission of HIV was preventable, Smalley says.
“M2M is as much about empowerment as education,” Smalley says. It’s vital the women feel their time and impact is of value. The mentor mothers become role models in their townships, villages and communities, Smalley says.
“There is a significant correlation between disclosure and treatment,” Smalley says. “Women who attend mothers2mothers sessions frequently are more likely to have disclosed their HIV status. Disclosure of status makes women more likely to take ARVs.”
The organization’s goal is to help eradicate pediatric AIDS by 2015.
The days of African women too scared to test are fading. Last year the organization began a spokesperson training program to empower mentor mothers to sit on panels, do interviews and give speeches to help educate others about the cause. The mothers are becoming the face of the organization, Smalley says, one of courage, spirit and empowerment.
For more information about the organizations visit www.m2m.org or www.injazalarab.org.