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Saving lives with peer education

April 17, 2013

Today, Valentine is strong and her smile is radiant. But two years ago, she was weak and could barely eat. “I could not even lift a spoon to feed myself,” she says. “I had to be supported in everything, including feeding and bathing.”

ValentineValentine was desperate. She went from one traditional healer to another, but no one could diagnose her illness. Eventually, Valentine’s husband left. Believing her sickness was brought on by evil spirits, he said he would only return if she found a solution to her illness. In early 2011, at 27 years of age, Valentine and her 10-year-old son went to live with her mother in Munhava, Beira. Valentine’s mother took her to the Munhava Health Center to get tested for malaria. The results were negative, and Valentine’s condition did not improve.

A visit from a stranger would change the course of her life. Domingas João Quembo was a peer educator with the Estradas project (ROADS II) in Mozambique (the project is funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development and is implemented by FHI 360). Domingas told Valentine about the Estradas project and how it was educating people in the Munhava and Port of Beira communities about HIV. She explained the importance of voluntary HIV counseling and testing as a critical tool in preventing the spread of HIV and in linking people who test positive to services for care and treatment.

“I reflected on what Domingas told me and decided to get tested for HIV,” says Valentine. “I asked Domingas to accompany me for the HIV test. The result came back positive. It made me very sad, but having Domingas there to encourage me was helpful.”

Soon after testing positive, Valentine began antiretroviral therapy (ART) at the Munhava Health Center. Together with her son, Valentine soon returned to live with her husband. She convinced her husband to get tested for HIV, and he too started ART treatment.

After learning of her HIV status, Valentine joined the local cluster, which is an association of community groups with similar interests that comes together to jointly plan and implement activities to meet community needs. Along with 163 other women and men, she has been trained as a peer educator. “I promised myself that when I get well, I am going to be like Domingas and help other people like she helped me.”

Valentine uses her experience to spread HIV prevention and positive-living messages to others in her community. “When I share my experience with people in my community, they listen because they saw me suffer and they can see how my life has improved. My presence in this area helps people live responsibly and change their behavior. I am not ashamed of my status, because it has helped me reach many people.”

Through peer education and other avenues, such as interactive drama, FHI 360’s Estradas program is helping to build a culture that encourages community members to seek HIV prevention services.

Still, battling misconceptions about how HIV is transmitted is a significant challenge in Valentine’s community. “We continue to have problems when we tell people to go to the health center,” says Valentine. “They say they will get the disease because they have been told that doctors transmit the disease to them.” But Valentine and her peers are using information, education and communication to gradually debunk these misconceptions. “Through the skills we have been given by Estradas, we are convincing them to go to the health center or the Estradas Paragem Segura Resource Center,” says Valentine. To address issues of stigma and discrimination, Paragem Segura (SafeTStop Resource Center) in Munhava contains a counseling and testing facility with a secure, private entrance that ensures confidential access to services.

Today, Valentine is the mother of a 5-month-old, HIV-negative daughter. “Maybe God is rewarding me for the work I am doing in this community,” she says. “HIV/AIDS is everybody’s problem: family, community and society, and we have to join hands and address the issue together.”

For more on Estradas (ROADS II) in Mozambique, click here.