This month, for the first time in my life, I'll be traveling outside of Africa when I to go New York City. This will only be the second time I leave Malawi, the country in which I was born 30 years ago.
Not only do I get to travel, but I will also lend my voice to two issues dear to my heart: HIV and young people.
When I was diagnosed with HIV nine years ago, the last thing I could have ever imagined was that I'd be able to live a healthy life and help others do the same. But I have been doing just that.
One way I am able to do this is through my job at mothers2mothers' site at the Bwaila Hospital in Lilongwe, the capital of Malawi. As a "Mentor Mother" for the last six years, I provide life-saving information to women who, like me years ago, find out that they are HIV positive and don't know what to do. Together with a team of seven other Mentor Mothers, we educate our clients -- and sometimes their partners -- on practical steps they can take to ensure that they protect their babies from HIV and keep themselves healthy. Because they get to interact with someone who knows first-hand exactly what they are going through, it offers them a real sense of hope.
I am so excited and humbled to be taking part in Johnson & Johnson's event this September in New York, which is addressing the question of whether or not youth are the key to unlocking improved health for mothers and babies.
Part of my message is that young people must get tested for HIV. That's the first step in taking responsibility for your life and the ones you love. In sub-Saharan Africa, where I come from, AIDS is the leading cause of death for adolescents. Even more shocking is that although HIV statistics for older and younger age groups have greatly reduced on a global basis, AIDS is the second leading cause of death for adolescents (after traffic accidents).
I believe poverty and a lack of clear understanding are the largest contributors of the new infections among young people. I've witnessed young girls who engage in sexual activities with older men for money in order to make ends meet. Many of them have unprotected sex. This under-18 age group needs support and education so they understand the necessity of protection and treatment.
I first learned my HIV status close to a decade ago. My husband and I went for a test after he continued to get sick. I couldn't believe the results because I was not sick. I was so scared that I would die. No one at the clinic gave me counseling or talked to me about what HIV is and how I could manage it. It was a painful journey filled with rejection from some family members who didn't understand what we were going through. Sadly, my husband passed away six years ago. Thankfully, I have two healthy children, a five year old boy and nine year old girl.
Though it was very tough at the time, my experiences have made me a very strong woman. Through my work at mothers2mothers, I have gained a wealth of information about HIV, how to lead a healthy life and how to protect my children from infection. Best of all, I've learnt the importance of going for regular health checkups, eating a well-balanced diet and sharing with others in the support group. I can now disclose my status confidently without fearing stigmatization. As a Mentor Mother, I feel like my life has been restored back to me.
Years ago my HIV positive status was my biggest burden. Now, it is my strongest suit. I'm a perfect example that a woman can be HIV positive and also healthy and successful. Most important, I will get to take part in efforts to improve the health of young people and create an HIV-free generation.