March 10, 2010 is women and girls HIV/AIDS Awareness Day. What’s the big deal about that? Here in the United States, women comprise nearly one-third of HIV infections, up from about 8 percent in 1984. In many countries around the world, women already represent more than half of HIV infections.
Rates of teenage pregnancy and of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) have risen over the last several years – both indicators that we may soon see a corresponding rise in HIV infections among both young women and men. And, although with treatment HIV is considered a chronic manageable condition in the U.S., AIDS continues to be the leading cause of death among African-American women aged 25 to 34 years old.
Yet much of the general public think of HIV in the U.S. as a men’s disease and women are usually not perceived as being at risk for HIV, even within the medical and public health community.
This year–2010–has the potential to be a year of transformation for communities impacted by HIV, and advocates for women affected by HIV must take unprecedented leadership in the epidemic. President Obama’s commitment to developing and implementing a National HIV/AIDS Strategy (NHAS) could not come at a more necessary time. Women affected by HIV are the most vulnerable members of society, and HIV-positive women disproportionately tend to lack health insurance, experience barriers to care, and endure poor health outcomes. The alluring promise of national health reform is almost a mirage in the midst of an economic desert – a lake that seems increasingly muddy the closer we get.
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Achieving a meaningful National HIV/AIDS Strategy for women will require as a foundation meaningful health care reform, to secure the basic standard of care that should be every individual’s human right, including removal of pre-existing condition exclusions and lifetime caps. An effective NHAS will require leadership that upholds and expands human rights and anti-discrimination laws – a commitment to address gender inequity, homophobia, HIV-related stigma and discrimination, and to decriminalize sex work and substance use.
Achieving a gender-sensitive National HIV/AIDS Strategy will require institutionalizing a public health response to social and structural vulnerability, including violence against women- by partnering with a diversity of stakeholders, including HIV-positive women and those who work directly with them. And a NHAS that truly works for women will require integration of sexual and reproductive health services with HIV testing and care. March 10 is a day to reflect, recommit, and resolve to transforming the experiences lived by HIV-positive women every day. For more about how you can be an effective advocate for women living with HIV, please check out the work of the U.S. Positive Women’s Network, www.pwn-usa.org. Join us! Our time is now.