The Coalition is very excited to introduce you to our newest Ambassador, Miriam, an 18-year-old living in Uganda with her three-year-old son. Among the many accomplishments she has achieved in her young life, Miriam is a Mentor Mother with TEENS Uganda and a peer educator with Uganda Network of Young People Living with HIV/AIDS (UNYPA). Through candidly sharing her own experience, she has become a passionate advocate for social change, working to empower fellow adolescents to make choices that will positively impact their lives. Below, you will hear from Miriam in her own words.
Can you describe your experience growing up and learning that you are HIV positive?
I lived with my dad and grandma. My mother was HIV positive and I was born with HIV, but no one told me. My grandmother would say, “Come and take your medicine.” But, I got fed up and stopped taking it. I asked myself, “Why am I the only one taking medicine?” I asked my grandma, but she didn’t want to tell me right away. But, then, finally, she told me the truth – that I am HIV positive.
What are some of the challenges young, HIV-affected mothers face?
In Uganda, and in other countries, too, young mothers face a lot of discrimination and stigma. And as adolescent girls, we face many challenges that make it harder for us to protect ourselves from HIV and early pregnancy. Sometimes, we do not have the power or knowledge to make positive choices.
I felt stigmatized when I became pregnant. After giving birth, I was often verbally abused by strangers. They told me that I shouldn’t have a baby because I am too young and HIV positive. This made me feel isolated and alone.
I always got dirty looks from my friends and the community. They used to say that I am disgusting, just because I had a baby at a young age. Parents would not allow me to interact with their daughters. I just kept silent. I couldn’t change anything apart from wanting the world to swallow me up.
Coping with school after giving birth was a challenge. I felt stigma, misunderstood, and the pressure from my fellow learners, who marked me as a sinner. This made the school environment hard for me. There was no support to help me through it. The solution was always to stay silent, focused, and mind my own business because I wanted to continue pursuing my goals.
My grandmother took me to an organization for young mothers – Wakisa Ministries in Kampala Mengo. I met other young mothers, some younger than me. I felt that I fit in there.
HIV stigma and discrimination is still a big problem in my country. Therefore, I have plans of starting up a community-based organisation that will protect HIV positive young mothers and equip them with economic empowerment skills to sustain themselves and their children.
In addition to stigma, young mothers face many other challenges such as poor parenting skills, poor parent/child communication, less consistent parenting, stress related to illness, and poverty.
What is your life today, as you go to school, raise your son, and address the challenges of being HIV positive?
As a young mother, I try my level best to be the best parent. I need to take care of my son’s health care and make sure he has food. I have to make sure that, whenever my son is not feeling well, I take full responsibility. In situations when I have no money, I take him to a government, public hospital for free medical services. l often run short of money to cater to the needs of my child. And I can’t always ask my family.
Many priorities compete for my time – attending school, taking care of my son, and meeting up with peers. Sometimes, I have little time for my son, and have to leave him in the care of my grandmother.
My family supports my son and me. They provide us with somewhere to live, feed us, and pay for my school every term. They have played a big role in taking care of my son in my absence. The community has always helped in advising me never to give up. They have always been friendly to my son, allowing him to play with other kids and not discriminating against him.
There was a time when I didn’t have this support. The challenge I faced at that time was finding someone to look after my son when I was at school. My family were all busy and not around. This person had to be paid daily or weekly, which was a hard task for me, since I didn’t have money and I wasn’t working. This troubled my mind as a young parent and affected my studies as well. I just felt like leaving school to take care of my son.
Why did you want to become a Coalition Ambassador?
I live in a community where many girls get pregnant as teenagers and don’t know what to do. On top of that, the community treats them as outcasts. In my country, some communities go as far as taking the teen mother to an island to die there alone.
I want to provide a safer space for adolescent girls and teen mothers. I want to revive hope in them and empower them to go back to school and achieve their dreams. I went back to school and, currently study at Old Kampala Senior Secondary School. I am the Entertainment Prefect, and I have used my position during assemblies and class engagements to talk to my fellow students about prevention of HIV and early pregnancy. I want to educate others on how to protect themselves from HIV infection, and how to avoid early pregnancy, teaching them bargaining skills and sharing knowledge about how to make choices that positively impact their lives.
I strongly believe my work with the Coalition will enable me to be a stronger voice for the many other young, HIV positive mothers in my community, in Uganda, and in other countries as well. It will also help me to be a source of comfort and a mentor to other young people around me. As an advocate in my own community, nationally via TEENS UGANDA and UNYPA, and internationally via the Coalition, I have an opportunity to educate and advocate, which can help to fight stigma. I believe with a greater platform, a lot more mountains can be moved.
What are your future plans to help share your message and support HIV-affected girls?
By being a champion, I want to inspire adolescent boys and girls to stay in school. I want to create an enabling environment that promotes and protects all young people in Uganda to live healthily and free of reproductive health challenges. I plan on starting a campaign that will protect girls and keep them in school and also hope to rehabilitate their re-entry back to schools and into communities without discrimination.
What message do you want to share with other young HIV affected mothers?
Don’t let the past determine your future. The joy of being a mother comes in moments. There will be hard times and frustrating times, but there are shining moments and satisfaction. Don’t give up!
Want to hear more from Miriam? Hear her talk about her experience in this video.