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All Babies Are Equal – Helping HIV-Positive Mothers Deliver Healthy Babies

By: Svetha Janumpalli, Founder & CEO at New Incentives

New Incentives was a winner of the Women Deliver Social Enterprise Challenge held at the Women Deliver conference in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia in May 2013.

A year ago, I was invited to represent New Incentives in Malaysia for the Women Deliver Conference. At the time, I had been running New Incentives for two years, giving cash transfers for everything from increasing attendance for young females in rural India to reducing HIV transmission in West African villages. The concept was simple: poor people lack money and decisions like not sending their daughters to school is born more out of economics than a lack of understanding of the value. In the last year since winning the Women Deliver Conference, we have grown from a young startup that was still looking for a focus, to helping mothers with HIV give birth to healthy babies.

For a very young non-profit focused on impact, we were doing alright: we were achieving 94% school attendance for young girls in India and our pilot achieved a 0% transmission rate of HIV from mothers to children in Southeast Nigeria. The issue was that while these results sounded great, different partners were managing them and we didn’t really know much about each one. The advantage of being a startup is to be able to pay attention to small things and make essential changes that have a large impact and instead we were spreading ourselves too thin without learning much. It was also very hard to communicate our organization to donors and we found ourselves lacking a core focus.

Attending and winning the Social Enterprise Challenge at the Women Deliver conference in Malaysia gave me the opportunity to meet leaders from around the world who understood cash transfers and gave the perspective I needed to take the organization forward. Shortly after the conference, we decided to focus on our PMTCT program in Nigeria because it gave us the opportunity to use cash transfers to make a long-term impact – reduce the number of children being born with HIV.

HIV transmission from mother to children is almost completely avoidable and yet we see over 300,000 children born every year with HIV. Half of the mothers who give birth to babies with HIV have to see these babies die before they reach the age of two; while many others have to see their children battle HIV as they grow up. Having personally met these women I can tell you that no mother chooses this for their children. Poor women in villages and their families depend on the relationships with their local community for day-to-day survival and the strong stigma attached to HIV can lead them to being alienated by this very society. In such circumstances, a young 25-year-old mother who has just learned about her HIV status and the chances of transmitting the virus to her children often has no choice but to try and forget about it and hope that she doesn’t have to see another child get taken away from her while she survives. It is a hard truth that even I did not completely understand before I spent time with these mothers.

We give these HIV-pregnant mothers earning less than $2/day the opportunity to earn $200 in cash over a period of 1 year. To earn this money, they have to take their anti-retroviral medications diligently, deliver in the clinic, and collect test results of their infants so they know the status of their babies and can pursue necessary follow-up care. If followed, treatment reduces the risk of HIV transmission to less than two percent.

I have relocated to Akwa Ibom in Nigeria where the mothers my team speaks with often cry and tell us how much they appreciate our program, which is locally called All Babies Are Equal (ABAE). There is no reason for a baby to be born with HIV in this world and we are on a mission to make HIV-positive babies a thing of the past.

I am confident that the Women Deliver Conference will continue to help young organizations with funding and exposure as they take their next step towards making an impact on the lives of women and children. If there is one thing I hope organizations will take away from this post it is to start being brutally honest about the change your organization creates and to use the opportunity of participating in the Women Deliver Conference to meet leaders who can help you understand how your organization can create a scalable impact.

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