Sadness is etched on Momina’s face when she talks about her younger son Yerosa. Born HIV positive, he is three now but Momina knows very little of his life save for the occasional photos that she is sent by the American family who adopted him.
“The love I have for my children is very special, it’s really a deep feeling, there are so many hardships that I went through for the sake of my children,” she says. Momina, currently lives with her oldest son Rapira, 6, in the city of Adama in central Ethiopia. She herself was diagnosed HIV positive three years ago when she was already unknowingly pregnant and subsequently unable to get access to treatment to prevent onward transmission to Yerosa. Four months after he was born she learned his status and took the agonising decision to give him up in the hope that he would receive treatment in the US.
“I decided to give him to people who can offer him better medical care. I convinced myself that it’s better to see my child well. If he had not been seriously ill, I would not have given him away… I have a special place for him in my heart since he is my child for whom I have been through a huge ordeal. I named him Yerosa (that time) to remind me of that time.”
Providing for Rapira
Only 22, Momina has had to face up to more hardship than most her age. She left home while still under age, worried that her parents would marry her off to an older man as they did with her older sister, who later died of AIDS. After falling pregnant with her first child, Rapira, she spent the intervening years moving from community to community, from temporary job to temporary job, to try and provide a home for him. “There are times when I feed my child and I do not eat at all. I sometimes come home late from work, there are times when I wake him up and feed him because I don’t want him to sleep with an empty belly.”
When Momina found out that she was HIV positive three years ago, she was briefly reconciled with her family but her mother worried that she would infect her siblings and asked her to leave. Determined not to be defined by the virus, Momina is candid with work colleagues about her status but, in a country where HIV stigma and discrimination still prevail, her openness sometimes costs her and she is presently between jobs.
“I want to continue my education and qualify as a nurse. I have always had a passion and love for the profession and I want to serve people like me, people living with the virus. I would be happy if I can do that. My biggest aim is to get educated, get a job and live my own life but at the same time l don’t want to cry over spilt milk.”
The Ethiopia context
Globally young people aged 15-24 account for 40% of new HIV infections with 2,400 new infections every day. In Ethiopia women account for a larger share of those directly affected by HIV than men, and women living with HIV are more likely to experience violence as a result of their status, not only from partners, family members and the wider community. Additionally young Ethiopian women often have to contend with harmful traditional practices such as female genital mutilation, early marriage and abduction which make them more vulnerable to HIV infection.
Momina has been helped with access to antiretroviral therapy (ART) and support from a volunteer care giver by the Organization of Social Services for AIDS (OSSA), the country’s largest NGO working on HIV issues. Every fortnight she attends a support group meeting organised by OSSA where she and other members of her community living with HIV meet to share their experiences. Despite being one of the youngest in the group, Momina is not backwards at coming forwards and is a major influencer with her peers.
In another world, life for Momina and her family could have turned out so very differently. If she had known how to protect herself against HIV. If she had gone through proper antenatal care when she was pregnant with Yerosa. If she had not felt compelled to run away from home for fear of early marriage. If she was able to work freely without worrying about becoming a target for discrimination.
Programmes like Link Up, managed by a consortium of international and national nongovernmental organisations led by the Alliance, hope to provide some of the answers so that other young people like Momina don’t have to experience what she has. Read about Link Up here.
As for Momina, she refuses to be bowed down by events in her life. “I would like people to see me a strong person,” she smiles. “I know that there is strength in me; I got that strength from the life I have had. I want young people of my age to be strong and to have the strength to face and overcome challenges.”