New York City is home to more than 30,000 women and girls infected with HIV/AIDS, ten percent of all women infected and more than any other city in the United States. A disproportionate number of these women — 90 percent — are black and Hispanic and more than a third, or 41 percent, were infected through heterosexual activity. So it’s fitting that today, National Women and Girls HIV/AIDS
Awareness Day, the Women’s HIV Collaborative of New York released Women Living
with HIV and AIDS in NYC, a geographical analysis and comprehensive examination
of the epidemic as it affects women in the five boroughs.
Using statistical data compiled by
government agencies, the report visually depicts by ZIP code a clear reality:
women of color living in low-income areas are most at risk for HIV/AIDS
infection. Socio-economic factors depressing their communities,
like high rates of incarceration and low rates of high school graduation, as
well as lack of access to reproductive health care and information about risk
reduction, put them in a uniquely vulnerable position for infection and at a possible disadvantage for treatment.
Young women of color are disproportionately
affected by HIV/AIDS; black and Latina women ages 13-24 account for 75% of all
new infections nationwide. Not surprisingly, the "hot spots" with the highest
HIV/AIDS infection rates in the city also have the highest rates of sexually
transmitted infections (STI’s) and unplanned pregnancies.
The report recommends mandatory
comprehensive sexuality education in New York’s public classrooms to slow the
epidemic’s devastating effects on the next generation. It calls on local and
state leaders to take the lead in providing young people the information to
make informed, responsible decisions about sex. Unfortunately, that’s an area
in which New York politicos have proved, in all senses, quite deficient.
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New Yorkers might be surprised to learn
their state, generally a leader in reproductive health policy, doesn’t actually
mandate comprehensive sex education in the schools. On the contrary, New York
has ranked at the top of the list, with Texas
of states that receive the most money for abstinence-only-until-marriage
programs, accepting more than 13 million federal dollars in 2007 earmarked
solely for lessons in "just say no" that often contain factual inaccuracies
about condoms and contraception, generalizations about sexuality that are based
on biases about gender and sexual orientation, and religious overtones.
Since New York has no statewide standards
for sex education beyond minimal instruction in HIV/AIDS prevention, a victory won by responsible sex education advocates in the past decade, other
information young people receive about sex often varies by classroom and
teacher. In one upstate high school, one health teacher brings in an educator
from Planned Parenthood to cover STI’s and condoms while the other health
teacher invites a speaker from a religiously affiliated abstinence-only
organization to talk about the risks of sexual activity. Even New York City
public schools have taken up sexless sex ed, banning condom demonstrations in
the classroom at every grade level, for any reason.
advocates and young people have been sounding the alarm about the dismal state
of sex education in New York schools. "Part of the battle is getting New
Yorkers to believe this could really happen here," says Galen Sherwin, director
of NYCLU’s Reproductive Rights Project."Parents are shocked to find out their
children may not be learning what they think they should be about sex." When
polled, 88% of New Yorkers believe students should receive information about
contraception and the prevention of STI’s.
Lawmakers have been slow to respond. The
Healthy Teens Act, a bill that creates a competitive grant program,
administered by the Department of Health, for schools and communities to choose to teach comprehensive sexuality education over abstinence-only, was first introduced in 2002 and has passed the Assembly
every year since, but died in the hostile political environment of the state
Senate. However, the November elections gave New York a pro-choice majority in
the upper chamber for the first time in forty years, clearing the way for the
bill to pass before another generation is lost to ignorance and misinformation.
Facing a $15.4 billion budget shortfall,
Governor David Paterson has vowed to veto legislation that includes new funding
components and he’s been keeping his promise. If the Healthy Teens Act does
pass this session, it will likely die on Paterson’s desk, although a strong
argument could be made that every dollar spent on comprehensive sex education
is one of the few good investments these days, as reducing the $421 million the
state spends per year on costs associated with teen pregnancy could only be
described as a financial win.
The health of New York’s young people, then,
likely rests with President Obama, who could for the first time in history
direct federal funds toward comprehensive sex education programs like those
specified in the Healthy Teens Act. New York’s congressional delegation must underscore
their constituents’ support for such a move, and the potential benefits that
young people, not just in New York but nationwide, could reap from receiving
unbiased, comprehensive sexuality education for the first time.
During the campaign, then-candidate Obama
told his young supporters, "it’s the right
thing to do, to provide age-appropriate sex education, science-based sex
education in the schools." Obama’s 2010 budget overview includes
a commitment to "fund [sexuality education] models that stress the
importance of abstinence while providing medically accurate and age-appropriate
information to youth who have become sexually active." When the
budget comes out, with numbers attached, later this month, we’ll see if as
President he’s good for his word.