New life, new hope: one woman’s triumph in saving unborn babies from Aids

By Mercy Njoroge

International Women's Initiative News Writer

Uuuihoreye Donatira was only 18 years old when the gruesome civil war in Congo broke out in 1997. She narrowly escaped death in a war that she knew nothing about and after spending weeks on the road, she eventually reached the Kyangwali Refugee Settlement in Uganda, where she found refuge.

However, her relief – and her hopes of re-establishing some normality in her life – were short-lived. She was pleased to discover that she was expecting her second child, however during a routine antenatal visit to the Hoima Regional Referral, the doctor delivered some devastating news. Donatira was diagnosed HIV-positive, a personal tragedy that shook her to the core. “When the doctor told me I had Aids, I got very scared that I and my unborn child were going to die. I cried for hours as the doctor tried to reassure me and he asked me to go back to the health centre the following day with my husband,” Donatira said.

The worst was yet to come. Donatira returned home and sat down with her husband before breaking the news to him. He did not take it well and was burning with rage, but he promised to accompany her when she returned to the health centre the next day. He was tested following the procedural counselling and preparation, and the result was negative. He left the hospital in a temper and when she arrived back home she found him totally enraged and suffered a vicious verbal assault. He then denounced her, and left the homestead.

Although Donatira had been left exhausted and destitute, she religiously attended antenatal clinics at the Kyangwali Health Centre III Anti-Retroviral Therapy Clinic. She received counselling, medical care and social support. A few months later, she gave birth to a healthy baby girl. “The women I used to go with to the river to fetch water started mocking me. I became a laughing stock of the village. My husband had abandoned me and they knew the circumstances behind our separation. He openly declared at the market centre that he could not live with an HIV-positive woman,” says Donatira, now a mother-of-three.

Life became even more unbearable after the birth of her baby, and it was only Donatira’s own resilience that enabled her to ‘get up, dust herself and soldier on’.  

“With stigmatisation unfolding before my very own eyes, I discovered I was being treated with scorn because my people (refugees from Congo), lacked knowledge about HIV/AIDs. I saw an information gap and I decided to be an agent of change in my community,” she says.

Donatira later joined the Kyangwali Health Centre III Anti-Retroviral Therapy Clinic as an Expert Client Volunteer (ECV). She has now been working there for eight years, and is involved in a therapy clinic promoting the Elimination of Mother-to-Child HIV Transmission (EMTCT) programme.

She had originally volunteered at the health facility for two years but today, with financial support from local NGOs, she is now able to earn a small living by imparting knowledge to couples – discordant or otherwise. To her patients, Donatira is an EMTCT ambassador and an inspiration that anyone can emerge triumphant, even when the situation seems hopeless.

“I received the training from a local organisation and that is when, with a group of 20 women, we came together to share our experiences. This encouraged others to come out in the open about their experiences and it is through this initiative that I have become an EMTCT peer-mother for many families in the settlement camp,” she adds.

Last month was World AIDS Day. Marked annually on 1 December, it is dedicated to raising awareness of the global pandemic as well as to mourn those who have died.  For health officials, NGOs and individuals around the world, the day is often observed with education on Aids prevention and control.

It is on such a day that the efforts of people such as Donatrira are recognised and they are appreciated for their dedication to the ongoing, global fight against HIV/AIDS.

Today, Donatrira, now 35, is the go-to person whenever a pregnant mother tests positive, and has already reached around 500 women. “When they come to me, I counsel and encourage them to follow the doctors’ instructions for the survival of their unborn babies. Every so often, I give talks to couples on the importance of regularly taking an HIV test, on how to stay safe if they are infected and on how to protect themselves if they are not. I am satisfied by knowing that I am creating positive change in my community.”

The inception of the EMTCT programme has saved a significant number of babies’ lives in the refugee settlement, and the records show the impact that it has had in the effort to eliminate mother-to-child HIV transmission. For instance, since January 2015 only one baby has been exposed to the virus, out of 20 that were born to infected women.

After delivery there is a follow-up programme for lactating mothers, to ensure that they continue to take medication to avoid infecting their babies.

According to Sister Joan Mary Otimong, Medical Officer of the Primary Health Centre (PHC), there is a need for follow-up after mothers have given birth, especially for those who breastfeed and wean their babies before six months of age.

She says that Traditional Birth Attendants (TBAs) are discouraged from delivering HIV-positive women and that is why in Uganda, they are encouraged to become Safe Motherhood Promoters themselves, working primarily to encourage mothers-to-be to visit the health facility for regular check-ups and to ensure that they deliver in hospital. The Safe Motherhood Promoters also give weekly and monthly reports on how many pregnant women are present in their communities and when they are expected to give birth, to facilitate follow-up.

When I visited Donatira at her home in Mukarange village, I met her two bubbly daughters and her son, each of whom is a living testament to their mother’s resilience. When they grow up, the two girls cheerfully told me: “I want to be a teacher,” says one, before her younger sister interjects, “Me, I want to be a nurse (sic)”. The composed young man says, “I want to be a driver, and work hard so that one day I will buy a big car!”