Rolake Odetoyinbo undoubtedly has one of the most powerful voices as far HIV/AIDS is concerned in Nigeria. Her values, her story- especially her triumph over AIDS-related stigmatization remains a great source of inspiration for many women living with HIV in Nigeria.
And so, when in 2006 Rolake was delivered of a gorgeous baby boy;Eyilayomi, it was a huge story with immense potentials. Rolake, then a columnist with Thisday Newspaper couldn’t wait to share the story herself with her readers. The story, as it turned out dealt AIDS-related stigmatization a further blow.
Her story also demystified the science of helping HIV positive mothers give birth to healthy HIV negative babies while providing a basis to evaluate the quality of Prevention of Mother to Child Transmission (PMTCT) Services in the country.
Soon after Eyilayomi’s birth, several other young, HIV positive mothers have recorded similar successes and currently coping with the challenges of motherhood and living life as HIV positive mothers.
“To be sincere, I’m denying my baby the best of time. Most times I’m not always there for him and I feel bad as a mother. It has not been easy, but thank God for my partner; he has been so supportive”, says Monisola Ajiboye who until now was an active member of the Network of People Living with HIV/AIDS (NEPWHAN) Lagos Chapter.
The joy of being a mother is one most women wish to share. But for a woman living with HIV, it can be a different ball game for a person living with HIV.
“The concerns even begin while you are pregnant; you are worried about your unborn child becoming HIV positive and how he would cope if he turns out HIV positive”.
For Moni, there are even more concerns and this also cuts across most HIV positive women and that has to do with choosing between breastfeeding and not breastfeeding.
“My in-laws were anxious to know why I am not breastfeeding. It took time for them to understand why I didn’t and that is because AIDS-related stigmatization is still on the high side and you get to feel it more as a mother living with HIV”.
Stigma threatens the quality of PMTCT services and even expose children born HIV negative to infection as most mothers for fear of disclosing their HIV positive status to in-laws often breast feed their babies and risk getting them infected.
Moni believe the problem is one that can only be dealt with within our national AIDS response.
“Stigma can be a personal issue it can also be an issue you need to deal with on the policy level where laws are made and enforced against stigmatization, but the major step begins with how the HIV positive woman see herself. If you are having issues accepting yourself as someone living with HIV, no law, no matter how effective can help you.”
Moni could say this bodly because she has been open about her status for years. That was even the reason her husband married her in the first place.
“I didn’t just wake up and decided to have a baby. I met my partner and disclosed to him my status, and he didn’t care about it and felt I am still a normal human being and we both decided to be together as husband and wife and of course bearing children is part of that process and with babies comes the responsibility of ensuring that the baby is HIV free”.
One discomforting dichotomy among the HIV world –a factor that is also of immense concern to HIV positive mothers is the “breast feed and don’t breast feed” issue.
While some guidelines recommends that infants born to HIV positive mothers should be breastfed exclusively for 6 months while being given cotrimoxazole prophylaxis for the first year of life some school of thoughts-in which Moni belongs feel this is a gamble that could expose children to infection.
“I personally do not agree with it because not all mothers will remember to give their infants the prophylaxis throughout the period of breastfeeding and that on its own is a risk”, says Moni.
Bose Olotu, AIDS activist, HIV positive mother and counselor feels ignorance and lack appropriate information are the major barriers especially when there are so many healthy, HIV free babies born to HIV positive mothers, yet there are growing number of HIV infected children at pediatric wards.
“It is so sad that we still have children being infected by HIV virus these days and what I feel could be fueling this is lack of appropriate knowledge about the virus; lots of people are aware of this disease but few have the correct information”, says Olotu.
According to Olotu, correct information in this regard has to do with knowing all there is to know about breastfeeding as a mother living with HIV and choosing between to breastfeed or not to breastfeed and having what it takes to live with the implication of both choices.
"If we can do it,every other woman can if only we can expand access to free quality PMTCT services to them:Amina,Monisola and Rolake seems to be saying in this picture taken at an AIDS event in Nigeria
“Most mothers want to breastfeed. But quality information on breast feeding are not been passed on to these women and so many of them are happy that they are not going to give their babies infant formulas .But know a woman who was told to breastfeed her child but the baby was only placed on prophylaxis for six weeks only, you can predict what would happen to her baby”.
This is definitely not what any mother would want to experience after going through PMTCT and the promise of a HIV negative baby.
The cost implication of having your baby through cesarean section and PMTCT services is not one most HIV positive mothers can afford and so for those who are able to pay the price, the joy of having a baby born without HIV is a befitting incentive.
“I did not pay for CS but I spent the total sum of 60,000 for feeding and other things”, says Olotu.
Moni’s case was too different. “I chose to have my baby in a general hospital where I had to pay as much as 60,000 naira but the PMTCT service I had to access free of charge”.
With supporting husbands and understanding in-laws motherhood for these working HIV positive mothers may just be some inspiring success stories. But it has not always been so.
“I think the main battle begins with dealing with stigma and having a healthy self esteem the rest things will simply fall in place”, says Moni. And Bose couldn’t agree less.
“I have dealt with stigma and discrimination long ago and all I need now is the means to give my children the quality of life they deserve”.