Women With HIV Deserve Investment Too

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Commentary Sexual Health

Women With HIV Deserve Investment Too

Ellen Liu

Leaving women out of the conversation, especially those most at risk of acquiring the virus, has real-world implications in terms of how public dollars to prevent and treat HIV are spent. It also further perpetuates a system of care that is not set up to be responsive to women’s needs.

More than 270,000 women in the United States are living with HIV, with women accounting for 20 percent of all new HIV diagnoses in 2010, the most recent year for which data is available.  

Although HIV has historically been associated with cis gay men, it currently affects women of all gender identities and sexualities. Yet the discourse around prevention and treatment does not adequately address the unique risk factors and barriers to effective treatment that women, especially those most at risk of acquiring the virus, face. Such discourse misleads people into thinking HIV is a disease affecting only gay men. This stereotype also has real-world implications in terms of how public dollars to prevent and treat HIV are spent. It also further perpetuates a system of care that is not set up to be responsive to women’s needs.

Women of colortransgender women, and women living in poverty have disproportionately high rates of HIV diagnoses. The rates of new HIV infections for Black and Latina women are 20 and four times higher, respectively, than for white women. In addition, nearly one-third of transgender women are living with HIV.

These are grim statistics for a nation that has made tremendous progress in treating HIV since the discovery of the virus. 

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These women are also less likely to have access to high-quality, affordable health care and safe living conditions. The majority of women living with HIV have experienced physical and emotional trauma, including intimate partner violence, which often causes and compounds economic security challenges in seeking care. In addition to lack of resources and stability to undergo treatment, women must also contend with the stigmas associated with being both poor and living with HIV.

Recognizing the disparities that exist for women living with HIV, the Ms. Foundation in 1996 created the “Women and AIDS Portfolio.” This portfolio funded women-led organizations working at the intersection of race, gender, and poverty and HIV treatment, care, and prevention. At the time, we were one of the only philanthropic entities that believed it was important to have a gender-specific approach to the movement to end HIV and AIDS. We approached our grantmaking, as we continue to today, with the understanding that holistic solutions were needed. HIV treatment cannot be looked at only through the lens of health. For low-income women of color, an HIV diagnosis is also a critical economic security and safety issue.

For 14 years, the Ms. Foundation supported the local work of an amazing group of grantees, among them SMARTBABES Network-YMCAChristie’s PlaceWORLDVOCAL NY, the National Women and AIDS CollectiveSisterLove and the Women Rising Project. Today, we remain committed to advocating for support of organizations like Positive Women’s Network and Women With A Vision that are centering the experiences and voices of those who are impacted by HIV and AIDS and ensuring services are provided in safe, non-stigmatizing, and gender-sensitive settings.

Despite significant work in this area, too few resources are being directed to women living with HIV. Although women account for 24 percent of all those living with HIV in the United States, only 16 percent of all domestic funding to address HIV/AIDS is specifically targeted to women. Such funding decisions obscure the great need among underserved communities, particularly low-income women and women of color, and limit our ability to address the systemic issues that contribute to HIV diagnoses.

In order for us to truly “get to zero” new infections, we must be committed to funding at the intersections of race, class, and gender.