Kenyan mentor mother: “We don’t believe in making poor people volunteer”

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Jackline Odongo is a Kenyan single mother, “living positively with HIV,” as she puts it, raising a healthy, HIV negative daughter. Her story spells out the magnitude of that accomplishment.

She told it Thursday at the International AIDS Conference in Washington, during a session titled “Sub-Saharan Africa: Progress against AIDS and Key Challenges.”

The challenges Odongo faced the day she tested positive for HIV, at a prenatal care appointment, are key, and common. The solution to those challenges, she says also is key, but uncommon.

Her husband beat her up and threw her out of their home when she told him her diagnosis. Orphaned years earlier, she was on her own. She turned to mothers2mothers, a support group she had been referred to upon her diagnosis, “women who were pregnant, who were positive, like me,” she recalled.

They gave her the information she needed to protect her child from the virus, and to save her own life. As importantly, she said Thursday, in time they gave her a job, providing the support she had benefited from, and now knew how to give to other women, and not as an unpaid volunteer, she added pointedly.

“We don’t believe in making poor people volunteer,” she said.  “We believe in making them feel valued.”

Most women in who provide the critical link between health care and patients, as mentors like Odongo, as treatment adherence support workers, are not paid, she and moderator Morolake Odetoyinbo or Nigeria emphasized, and while spending their time working for free are left to their own devices to come up with school fees for their children.

“Even if a woman has been working as a volunteer for years, when a program gets funding they will pay someone with credentials on paper, not recognizing the experience the woman has,” Odetoyinbo said.

Odongo estimated that 90 percent of the women in her country who advance to goals of treatment and prevention of mother to child transmission efforts by provide links to care and information go unpaid.

“If you will employ a woman with HIV but tell her you can’t pay her, that she is a volunteer, you are not empowering this woman,” Odongo said. “She still has to take medicine every day, have food to take it with, and at the end of the day she will go home ashamed, saying how will I feed my family?”

She couldn’t do everything that she is doing now without being compensated for her work, she said afterward.

“I would do it, if I had not been paid,” she said after the session, “I would have done it for the benefit of other women and for the community. But I would still have to pay house rent, buy food, to live and take care of my daughter.”





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