As we observe National Women and Girls HIV/AIDS Awareness Day (#NWAGHAAD) on March 10, I am reminded of just how badass women are. Madam Curie, Sally Ride, Amelia Earhart, Rosa Parks, just to name a few—all women who have made their mark on recent history. It’s little wonder why in 1987, Congress declared the month of March “National Women’s History Month”, a 31-day celebration of women’s achievements and contributions to greater society.
Despite trends that show HIV among women decreasing, disparities among women living with HIV remain high. In 2015, new HIV diagnoses among women were comprised of 61% African American, 19% white, and 15% Hispanic/Latino women (Source: AIDSInfo, 2018). These numbers remind us there is still much to be done in our outreach to women, particularly women of color. Perhaps 2018 is the year we band together to encourage all the women in our lives to get tested, treated and educated about HIV. Often, we forget that women are impacted by HIV, too. After all, nearly 25% of all new infections annually are found in women. What’s more alarming is that of HIV positive women, nearly half will report that they have experienced intimate partner or sexual violence in their lifetimes. It makes me wonder: why do so many positive women suffer in the silent shadows? Have we forgotten to give them their voice?
You may not think so—after all, women have started out strong in 2018, highlighting inequities we’ve endured and celebrating the courage to speak up. We’ve heard “enough is enough” with sexual assault awareness campaigns like “Me Too” and “Time’s Up”. These movements have dominated Hollywood star-studded events like the Golden Globes and the Oscars, with brave actresses sharing their stories of survival from sexual assault. You don’t have to be an A-list star to share your truth: women at NAP tell their stories in our women’s support group. But it is a process to gain the courage and confidence to speak up, sometimes taking years. As one woman so bravely shared, “I found out I was positive after being raped at a party. For a long time, I thought I deserved it because I had put myself in that place, with booze and drugs. I thought HIV was the perfect punishment for me because I had been so careless. But as I grew older, I realized that I had survived a terrible ordeal—and there was something powerful that happened when I stopped looking at myself as a victim and became a survivor.”
It should come as no surprise then to see so many women testifying to their truth, albeit quietly and in the confines of the NAP office walls–because nearly 1 out of every 2 women in the United States has been a victim of some form of sexual or intimate partner violence. Even more staggering, studies from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have found that HIV-positive women are twice as likely as their HIV-negative counterparts to experience sexual or intimate partner violence. Many women report that their partners often threaten to “out” their status to others as a form of abuse. I have heard countless heartbreaking stories of women who stayed in abusive relationships for far too long because they were afraid to be outed with HIV by their partners. “HIV was thought to be the ‘gay’ disease,” one support group goer admitted. “I know it’s not anymore, but back then, in the early 90s, how was I supposed to tell my family I had AIDS? The only people we saw were gay white man dying left and right.” Fighting back tears, she added, “All this time, we’ve really focused on getting gay men* tested and treated, so I think women forgot that this is our battle, too.”
I invite you to take a moment out of your day to reflect how your involvement in the HIV world helps women tell their stories. Do you bring awareness to women in your life? If you’re struggling with what to say, tell her that 1 out of every 4 people living with HIV is a woman, that our female friends of color are disproportionally affected, that getting tested is the only way to know for sure. Tell her to come see us at Nebraska AIDS Project, where HIV testing is always confidential and always free, no matter your gender. Tell a woman in your life that there are resources that can help her if she finds herself a victim of sexual assault or intimate partner violence. Encourage her to keep hotlines programmed into her cell phone, even if she thinks she doesn’t need it, including: Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673) or National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1−800−799−7233.
Tell a woman in your life today that you love her, support her, and cherish her. And all March long, remember to celebrate the women who’ve made history. As American writer Audre Lorde once wrote “I write for those women who do not speak, for those who do not have a voice because they were so terrified, because we are taught to respect fear more than ourselves. We’ve been taught that silence would save us, but it won’t.” Let those of us with a voice use it to impact the world for good.
*Note: today, we would use the term “MSM = men who have sex with men”
Brittany is a Southwest Iowa Case Manager for the Nebraska AIDS Project in Omaha, serving 11 counties in Southwest Iowa.