As part of its annual celebration of the Love Positive Women movement, GNP+ had the opportunity to interview dynamic young Tanzanian activist Pudensia Mbwiliza. Pudensia, aged 27, is based in Mwanza with her partner and 19-month-old son. In addition to her work as a lay counsellor or “expert client”, she juggles multiple leadership and governance roles. She is Chair of the Network of Young People Living with HIV in Tanzania (NYP+), as well as a Board member of the National Council of People Living with HIV. She also serves on the Tanzania National Country Co-ordinating Mechanism (CCM) as a representative of young people with HIV.
Pudensia’s work recently led to her involvement in the Global Alliance to end AIDS in Children by 2030, a new international collaboration – including GNP+, ICW and Y+ Global among its partners – to address the glaring disparity in progress between adults and children. The initiative aims to prevent new infant HIV infections and ensure that every child living with HIV has access to treatment by the end of the decade. Earlier this month, ministers and officials from the inaugural twelve African countries leading the Global Alliance, together with community representatives, UN agencies, stakeholders and partners, gathered in Dar es Salaam to discuss progress and plans. The resulting Dar es Salaam Declaration for Action to end AIDS in Children sets out a series of commitments to achieve the initiative’s ambitious aims.
Pudensia spoke powerfully on stage to the gathered dignitaries to advocate for positive mothers and their children, drawing on her own experience as well as NYP+’s close involvement in the process leading up to the Declaration. As she notes, “We held many conversations with our peers and colleagues, sharing information and ideas as young people. I am proud that we have reached the point where every child can be born HIV-free. We are at the forefront and we are going to make it happen!” While she sees the Declaration as a positive step and statement of intent, Pudensia is very keen that words are translated into deeds. “Ministers can talk, but we need to see the action! Dealing with politicians often means there is a very long line before a decision is reached. Meanwhile, HIV is still killing our children and young people.”
Pudensia knows first-hand the impact of HIV on families. She was only 9 months old when her mother passed away; through fear, her father was unwilling for his daughter to know her own status. Even after going for a test in early adolescence and learning the result, it was more than four years before Pudensia started accessing ARVs. “I had no-one to share this with, no-one behind me with support or advice.”
Even now, Pudensia admits, “I may seem confident on the outside, but I also need support. Like any human being, I face some stresses and I don’t always feel secure. All of us need other people to share things with.” Her go-to technique to relax at home is to sit back and watch an action movie, with the Transporter series being her favourite – “I even named my son Jason after the star, Jason Statham!” She has high hopes for her child’s future. “Many of us are HIV-positive because previously, there was no plan to help those waiting to be born. Now, my son is HIV-free and I want his whole generation to be free.” Prospects are also much brighter for those living with HIV: “I want to say to all the young people living with HIV out there, we can have it all – marriage, children, a job, a future – as long as we adhere to our treatment. Let’s also learn to accept our status, and tell others about it, so that we can live a free and positive life. If I am not fine with it, who else is going to be fine with it?”
It takes a lot of discipline to fulfil Pudensia’s competing responsibilities, while still ensuring time for her family – a challenge many women can relate to. Two hours each day can easily be swallowed up just reading CCM emails. “They send so many of them – and they’re all long!” Currently, with Tanzania in the process of preparing a Global Fund request, time management becomes even more vital. Of course, that is just one of the challenges she faces. According to Pudensia, working in the HIV space can be difficult. Sometimes she and fellow activists are accused of telling their stories to gain money or attention for themselves. Instead, she emphasises, “I’m just trying my level best to help my peers live with HIV in a positive way.” Lack of resources for this work is compounded by a shortage of income-generating opportunities for young people: “We have lots of ideas for working with youths, adolescent girls and young women, in rural areas for example, but without the funds we can’t reach them.”
From her experience as a positive young activist, leader and mother, Pudensia knows that collaboration is key. “None of us can make it on our own. We need to join together so our collective voices can be heard.” That is why GNP+ and Aidsfonds, through the EPIC initiative to end paediatric AIDS in children, are supporting young moms, dads and communities to develop strong advocacy initiatives and speak up for children. With the skills, energy and commitment of Pudensia and others like her, the twin goals of enabling young people to live happy, healthy lives with HIV and ending AIDS in children are within reach. A mother’s love is unbreakable – and when amplified through solidarity and channelled into focused activism, it is surely unbeatable.
 Vice President of the United Republic of Tanzania, Vice President and Minister Health and Child Care of Zimbabwe, Ministers of Health or their representatives of Angola, Cameroon, Cote d’Ivoire, Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya, Mozambique, Nigeria, South Africa, Uganda, Zambia, representatives of SADAC, the East African Community, the Joint United Nations Programme on AIDS, UNICEF, WHO, Networks of People Living with HIV, Global Fund, PEPFAR, PATA and Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation.