Our Partners: Shombi Ellis Connects Mothers Across Africa to Promote Health

Stories@Gilead - March 08, 2021

Women helping women. That's at the heart of the work of mothers2mothers, a nonprofit organization in Africa that provides support to women living with HIV and their families. Its unique mentor model pairs mothers recently diagnosed with HIV with other women in their community who have gone through similar journeys. The pairing has led to significant success.

“The nonprofit was founded to look at bridging the gap in healthcare and allowing for women to build healthy families with the goal of ending HIV in children,” says Shombi Ellis, the organization’s country director in South Africa.  

For Shombi, who has spent the majority of her career focusing on HIV prevention and treatment, her work with mothers2mothers is a perfect continuation of her passion.

“I’m really inspired by the fact that community members are the ones that are making a difference,” says Shombi. “Without them, we wouldn't be able to do the work that we do.”

Women who are living with HIV in Africa face numerous obstacles. Those in rural areas don’t always have easy access to healthcare facilities. There’s also significant stigma and discrimination around the disease, which can be isolating. And sticking to a treatment regimen can be challenging while juggling the responsibilities of caring for a family.

In response, mothers2mothers created its mentor model, and the partnership creates a support system for navigating treatment and provides a safe place to discuss challenges.

“The mentors are frontline health workers,” Shombi explains. “They hold the hands of the mothers who use our services as they work with the doctors, nurses and other health staff so that the women really stay the course of their own health journey.”

Mentors also build trust and destigmatize discussions around the disease by sharing their own experiences.  

“The sharing of personal stories between women is powerful,” says Shombi. “The mentors are able to openly talk about their personal journeys, and help answer tough questions newly diagnosed mothers may have.”

In the 20 years since mothers2mothers was founded, the program has evolved. The organization realized early on that the mission to provide care to women living with HIV doesn’t end when they give birth.

“Over a number of years, we added reproductive services and maternal, newborn, child and adolescent health,” Shombi says. “We also expanded to include early childhood development and other diseases.”

The organization has reached more than 11 million women and children to date. While mothers2mothers invests in communities in Africa, its success with the mentorship program has led Shombi and others to think about where to go next.

Through an ongoing partnership with Gilead, the group is looking at possibilities for expansion.

“We want to reach even more mothers living with HIV, but we can’t do everything on our own,” says Shombi. “Collaborating with Gilead and other partners has allowed us to start to think about how we can expand the mentorship model beyond Africa.”