"I’ve learned so much through my experiences as an HIV-positive pregnant woman in two countries. What strikes me most is how much harder it was for me to access the PMTCT services I needed in Zambia versus in the U.S.
"Every mother, regardless of where she lives, should have the opportunity to have an HIV-negative child, but so many cannot reach the services they need to do so, or don’t even know that they can."
My name is Martha, and I am 36 years old. Today, I live in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., but my story begins in Kitwe, Zambia, where I was born and raised.
Growing up in Zambia, I was surrounded by the effects of AIDS. By the time I was an adult in 2000, nearly 700,000 people had already died from AIDS since the first diagnosis in 1984. But to me, those numbers were not just statistics. I watched hopelessly as AIDS destroyed my family, my community, and my country. In my mother’s family of seven, four siblings lost their lives to AIDS.
On my father’s side, I said goodbye to two uncles and an aunt. But it didn’t stop with their generation. I attended 12 funerals for the 12 cousins I lost to the disease. Beyond family, I’ve parted ways with countless friends and community members because of AIDS.
When I was 23 years old, my mother died. The oldest of four children, I was now responsible for raising my younger siblings. In addition to my siblings, I supported orphan children, the youngest of whom was two years old. In 2000 I got engaged – I hoped getting married would provide a stable environment for my siblings. The marriage never happened, though, and in 2002, I travelled to the United States to pursue another dream: the American dream. There, I joined an American nonprofit committed to supporting orphaned children and widows, and soon returned home to establish the organization’s work in Zambia.
Upon my return to Africa in 2003, however, my health took a turn for the worse. That July, colleagues from the U.S. visited Zambia and found me very ill. Despite how sick I felt, I was in complete denial. With counsel and support, I was eventually tested and diagnosed with AIDS. I soon began treatment and slowly regained my health. Feeling better, I recommitted myself to my work. After everything I had been through, I understood what the orphans I was supporting were going through, too.
While I was passionate about my job, I had a difficult time balancing the stresses of work with my responsibilities at home, while attempting to manage my health. I managed the side effects of my medications the best I could while helping the children and raising my siblings. It wasn’t just work that I loved, but the loving and supportive relationships I developed through it. I met my future husband, Andy, at my job. He came to Zambia from the U.S. to participate in a mission trip with my organization in 2005.
After losing all hope of ever getting married because of my status, I met this guy who not only believed in miracles but also loved the kind of work I did,--and above all, loved me. I was swept off my feet by his love and compassion--and in 2007, Andy and I got married. After we started our life together in Zambia, the two of us immediately began to consider having a family. Before meeting Andy, I had never thought that I could have an HIV-negative child. But prior to getting married, my doctor surprised me, introducing me to prevention of mother-to-child transmission of HIV (PMTCT) services that help mothers like me have HIV-negative babies. He also educated Andy and me about how to keep Andy HIV-free too. This exciting revelation was the motivation I needed to begin my family. I was ecstatic, as was Andy.
After suffering a devastating miscarriage, losing our baby girl due to a cord accident, Andy and I welcomed a baby boy, Josiah, into the world in May 2009. Josiah was tested for HIV multiple times, and we were relieved to learn that he was HIV-negative. Josiah’s HIV-negative status, and the success of the PMTCT services I was able to access, prompted me to become more involved in the AIDS community in Zambia.
I was appalled at how difficult it was for women to find the services they needed to prevent the transmission of HIV to their children, and the stigma that I and other HIV-positive individuals were subjected to. It wasn’t right, and I was committed to supporting a change. I helped my church start an HIV support group for children, women, and families affected by HIV and AIDS, and advocated for the development of a new care and treatment center for my community.
When Josiah was five months old, Andy and I made the difficult decision to move our new family to the U.S. This meant leaving my community and the job I loved. The transition would have been more difficult had we not had the incredible support of Andy’s family and church, as well as the excitement of expanding our little family. Shortly after arriving in the U.S., we got pregnant again. Just like in Zambia, I immediately began PMTCT services, and in February 2011 we gave birth to a happy, beautiful baby boy we named Judah. Like his older brother Josiah, Judah is HIV-negative as well. Andy has also remained HIV-negative.
I’ve learned so much through my experiences as an HIV-positive pregnant woman in two countries. What strikes me most is how much harder it was for me to access the PMTCT services I needed in Zambia versus in the U.S. Every mother, regardless of where she lives, should have the opportunity to have an HIV-negative child, but so many cannot reach the services they need to do so, or don’t even know that they can.
As an HIV-positive mother of two HIV-negative babies, I feel it is my duty to educate women about stigma, HIV prevention, and the incredible gift of PMTCT services. I continue to advocate for increased access to these critical services and I look forward to the day when every HIV-positive woman in the U.S., Zambia, and every other part of the world has the knowledge, and the ability, to have an HIV-negative child.