The Sunday Mail
As messages of solidarity flew across social media networks, as flowers were carried from office to office, as phone calls were made across borders — all in commemoration of International Women’s Day — for 23-year-old Enita, the task at hand was very simple.
Packing her cloth bag with some sexual reproductive health pamphlets and health journals she had come across, which she hoped would be handy at her destination, she set for the five-kilometre journey to meet 19-year-old Chantelle.
To any ordinary observer, Enita and Chantelle could be ordinary girls in the community, probably meeting to discuss the ravaging drought, which is putting their livelihoods at risk. Or the assumption could be that they could be meeting to discuss study material for an upcoming examination.
However, three weeks earlier, Chantelle had delivered a bouncing baby boy and Enita, even at the tender age of 23, was on hand to offer advice, counselling and guidance to the new mother on how to look after her baby, when to bath it, how to feed it — and most importantly — check on whether Chantelle is constantly giving the baby her daily dose of medication.
But how does a 23-year-old, in most households a “baby”, be in a position to offer such kind of advice?
Enita is one of 14 young mentor mothers, who are aged between 17 and 24 years, who have been trained to offer these services to other equally young mothers. Besides sharing the same experiences of motherhood, these mothers share the same status — they are all HIV-positive.
“I discovered my status by default,” narrated Enita. “Growing up, I was always a sickling. Though my mother knew of my status, she never disclosed it to me, probably to protect me. See, I am the middle child in a family of five. The two older than me are negative, and the other two after me are negative. But I was born positive.”
Growing up fighting a plethora of illnesses, it was not until she had a miscarriage, well into her marriage that she stumbled upon her status. “After my miscarriage, the nurses suggested that I be tested and I went through counselling. When I tested positive, I went to my mother-in-law, my husband’s mother, and broke the news.
“With true mother’s love, she asked me to stand up, then she hugged me. She then took me through the whole HIV story, but what she told me, I had already been told at the hospital during counselling.”
Armed with a newly found sense of self-esteem, Enita went to “break” the news to her mother, her biological mother, who after listening to her narration of events, then opened up on Enita’s health history. The revelations by her mother did not break her spirit, but only added to her resolve, to help fight HIV, in whatever form and at whatever stage.
“After testing positive, I became an active member of the Community Adolescent Treatment Supporters (CATS) at Buhera Rural District Hospital. Then one day I received an invitation to undergo further training in HIV prevention, treatment, care and support.”
For two weeks late last year, Enita and 13 other young mothers from Buhera underwent peer-to-peer training for HIV positive young mothers organised by Africaid Zvandiri and the Ministry of Health and Child Care.
Equipped with the knowledge gained from the two-weeks training and her previous exposure and experience through the CATS programme, Enita was ready to be a young mentor mother, a task that she enjoys doing, day-in, day-out.
“I know it was not my making, neither was it anyone’s fault that I was born HIV-positive, but now that it has been proved that it is possible to give birth to an HIV-negative child, from an HIV-positive mother, I am now on a mission to help spread the message and love.”
When Enita was born, the prevention of mother-to-child transmission was not even a consideration, as health experts then were seized with finding the right combination of medications to fight the pandemic.
“But today it is possible to have an HIV-negative baby, from HIV-positive parents, that is the reason why I travel the width and breadth of my neighbourhood, to check on my peer mothers, if they are adhering to the guidelines on taking their own medication as well as their babies.”
Mercy Katerera, the Africaid Zvandiri mentor for Buhera, said out of the 34 health facilities in the district, six of them are implementing the young mentor mother project.
“Birchenough Bridge and Murambinda hospitals, because of their size, have three young mentor mothers each but Mombeyarara, Chiweshe, Buhera and Muzokomba have two each, giving us 14.”
To help the young mentor mothers carry out their home visits, Africaid Zvandiri donated bicycles to all of them except for those at Murambinda. Explained Eve Mtetwa, the Africaid Zvandiri young mentor mother project co-ordinator: “By law we are not allowed to give bicycles to those in urban and peri-urban settings, as the vehicular traffic pose a threat to the cyclists.”
But Enita’s role as a young mentor mother is not confined to home visits. She has a key role that she plays at Buhera Rural District Hospital.
The sister-in-charge of the hospital, Sister Shumirai Kundishora, said Enita is the link between the hospital and the community, especially young mothers-to-be.
“They come from the communities and they know what is happening back home. So if a young girl gets pregnant, Enita’s role is to reach out to that girl, teach her on the positives of getting to know their status and encouraging them to get tested. Because they come from the same community as well as that they are of the same age, communication barriers are broken down.”
Added Mtetwa: “Remember many people do not want to visit health facilities, for one reason or the other, so these young mentor mothers help to break that fear of either the clinic or the nurse.
‘‘If they come across a situation which they cannot handle, they in turn advise the nurses, who are well-trained and equipped to handle such situations.
“And in some cases, these young mentor mothers help young girls who are suicidal. On testing positive, some girls think it is the end of life, but they can get assurances from the young mentors, that it is not the end of life.”
Sometimes because of terrain, Enita opts not to use her bicycle, which, however, limits the number of home visits that she can do per day. She has 10 young mothers that she routinely visits.
When she is not home-visiting, she will be at the health facility, attending to walk-ins, capturing data and planning for support group meetings, which they hold once a month.
“One of the ideas that we have proposed to the sister-in-charge, is to have all young mothers receive their supply on the same date of a given month so that after receiving our supplies, we meet as a support group and discuss the myriad of challenges that we will be having,” said Enita.
PMTCT co-ordinator with the Ministry of Health and Child Care Mrs Swema Andifasi said though there are many interventions in vertical transmission, the introduction of young mentor mothers has been welcomed warmly by the Ministry as there had been little regard given to young mothers.
“Not much attention had been given to mothers younger than 24 years and this exercise, if rolled out across the whole country, will help the country achieve the 90-90-90 target much earlier,” she said.