Birrzaf Mesele remembers how it was more than 10 years ago, when she learned she was HIV-positive. Like most people in Mekelle, northern Ethiopia, she had no access to treatment. Then, people who tested positive for HIV would go home and wait to die.
But when treatment finally arrived, Birrzaf could not bring herself to start it. She stayed home. She did not want people to see her collect HIV medication. Stigma associated with HIV was high. Mums for Mums – an organization that works with vulnerable women in Mekelle with support from the Global Fund – helped her to gather the courage to start treatment. The therapy gave her strength to take care of herself and to raise her granddaughter, who was orphaned as a toddler and is now a girl of 11.
On a recent afternoon, Birrzaf was bedridden with injuries sustained from a minor road accident. But she exuded hope for recovery. The challenges she was facing this time were different. They were much lighter compared to the desperation that characterized her life before she started HIV treatment.
Letay Haduish, a health worker with Mums for Mums, reflected on those days of desperation more than a decade ago. Her eyes brimming with tears, she told the story of a young woman with HIV whom she visited in her early days with Mums for Mums. The young woman didn’t have access to treatment. She lived with her two children.
When Letay knocked on the woman’s door repeatedly without getting an answer, she pushed her way into the house only to find the woman lying dead and her baby still sucking at her breast. That horrifying scene and the high level of stigma associated with HIV have stuck with her. The woman’s sister agreed to take the newly orphaned children – but only if they tested negative for HIV. One test returned negative. But the other was positive. Letay could not budge her to take both children.
Letay says the story may sound farfetched today, but it underscores the remarkable progress made by the HIV community in the last decade. More access to treatment has meant that people living with HIV are thriving and stigma associated with the virus has plummeted. In 2003, two years after the founding of Mums for Mums, only 50,000 people had access to HIV treatment. By 2014, more than 10 million people were on treatment on the continent.
The impact of wide access to HIV treatment has been remarkable. In Ethiopia, where over 380,000 were on treatment in 2015, the national HIV prevalence was 1.14 percent in that year, down from 5.8 percent in 2002. Between 2000 and 2015, both annual new HIV infections and AIDS-related deaths fell by 79 percent, underlining a remarkable turnaround in the fight against the disease in the country.
Mums for Mums, the organization Letay works for, committed itself early on to transforming the lives of poor mothers, says Executive Director Ashenafi Asmelash. When the organization started its HIV work with support from the Global Fund, it was in emergency mode: delivering hot meals to bedridden patients, arranging for HIV treatment, providing support for the mothers and grandmothers struggling to cope with orphaned children.
“Today, much of the emergency work has declined, as women gain access to HIV treatment and regain their health,” Ashenafi says. Its 270 volunteers are spending more time educating women on HIV and family planning. The volunteers help build women’s vocational skills, such as dressmaking, embroidery and knitting as well as life skills to help them live fulfilling lives.
Ashenafi says that with the help of partners such as the Global Fund, Mums for Mums has succeeded in saving many lives. The organization is now doing more to support women to build stable families and communities.
Fifteen years after its founding, the story of Mums for Mums is symbolic of the progress made by global health partners in responding to HIV. Far from the days of “firefighting” to save people dying from AIDS-related complications, the organization can now afford to be more aspirational. Their newest project is a plan to build a university for women.