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HIV Frontlines: Executive Director of New Jersey Women and AIDS Network Talks About Gender Issues and Obstacles to HIV Prevention

A Conversation With Monique Howard

June 21, 2011


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This podcast is a part of the series HIV Frontlines. To subscribe to this series, click here.

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And then the connections need to be made that if you actually better people's lives, you give them more options, and that's such a huge, critical point around HIV -- is changing the lives, bettering the lives, of people. Economic stability. You know, dealing with gender oppression. And so then the other piece that I wanted to talk about, too, is that you deal with women and work with women, and that's kind of the major crux of what the organization does. How do you involve men in a conversation about safer sex, prevention and HIV testing?

We do it, but not with the same structure as we do with the women. I think that there's a whole bunch of resources for men. And there are very limited resources for women to just come and be. So my focus is in self-determination and allowing women to just come and be, and from that, learn the lessons that can hopefully reinforce or influence life-saving decisions. When we get with the men, it's just kind of the same type: How can we reduce the rates of HIV? But a lot of the work we do is with the women.

Now, I absolutely agree with you that in the state of New Jersey where, as I said, 33 percent of the people that are infected are women, and where the highest mode of transmission is heterosexual contact, that there's a man involved in there somewhere. But I think that there's a different level of preparation that we can do, and then bring them in later on.

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But we are not even doing the conversation piece. And so, there are women that don't have any place to go to talk about what's going on in their relationship honestly, and to say I may be at risk, but I don't know. So you have to get that piece first, and talking and creating an environment where women can talk openly and honestly about the relationship, about what's going on, about risk and risk reduction, and then getting to still feel good about themselves is important.

And that also talks to the fact that not every woman living below the poverty line is being abused, and is forced.

Absolutely.

There's that kind of in-between, when you talk about relationships, and you talk about people not wanting to lose the man that they're with. In so many instances, women have been socialized to not be confrontational, to be more timid, let the man be the man. You know, not really asking the kind of questions that we need to ask.

Right. You don't want to upset the apple cart.

Because if you're too much, he's going to leave. With some of the women who come in, has that been an issue, figuring that they're going to lose a man and not bringing it up?

It's just a part of how we're raised. It is part of our socialization. So, yeah, the idea that you ought to be glad you have a man, that's always going to be there. And do whatever it is you can to keep that one man. Because it's like no other man is going to come.

And so that type of thinking keeps us in relationships way after we know that they're over. No one else is going to come. I might as well stay. No one else wants me, anyway.

Or they keep saying there's not a lot of good men out there; I'd better be happy for the one I have. Or, I'm just happy he comes home.

Exactly. I'm happy he comes home. I'm happy he has a job. And he talks to me, like, "Hello," and that's it.

I just want to also be clear for the audience that this isn't every man.

Unh-unh; not at all. Not at all. And it's not every woman, either.

Right. It's not every woman. We're just highlighting something that's really, really important that doesn't get talked about -- this notion of, you should be lucky you have a man.

Right.

And the things that we do to put ourselves at risk to keep one.

Mm-hmm.

It's depressing, which leads me to my next question. How do you cope and deal with your own mental health? Because when you do this work, it can really get to you. What are some of the strategies that you use to deal with your own mental health around this?

Yeah, the work is really hard. Working at this agency, and falling in love with some of the women that I have fallen in love with, that are sick and suffering, and just trying to manage their life, is really emotional and hard. And I leave; I leave heavy.

We have an annual conference. We've been doing it for 22 years. November 3 and 4 will be our 23rd conference, here at Rutgers University in New Brunswick. And I spend most of the day on the verge of tears. And then there are just times when I'm not on the verge, I'm just openly crying. Just to see how HIV has devastated some of the women's lives that I've come in contact with over the years is amazing.

And so it gets hard. I have my extraordinarily silly moments, because you have to laugh. Or else I would spend hours crying. I dig 100 percent into the lives of my family. My spouse and my children are my backbone. And so, literally, when I get in the door, I turn off, and I become Mommy and Honey and that's it. And then somewhere after, when the house is quiet, I turn back on again.

But there has to be a physical on/off switch. And sometimes there are just some days I wake up and I say, "I can't do it today." Or, "I'm going to schedule my nearest breakdown for next week. Please don't bother me. I'm going to have a nervous breakdown on Monday and Tuesday." Unfortunately, you have to schedule it, because you have to see what else is on your calendar.

But, yeah. Exercise. Trying to be healthy. And just being aware of when my cup is full, and what that means. I have women I can call.

Is there anything else that you want to leave the audience with about the network; about the work that you do; about one thing they can do to help a sister, or a mother, or a grandmother, in learning about HIV?

The one thing that we can do -- I'll take that one -- the one thing we can do to save the life of a woman is to embrace each other, and protect each other, and talk about HIV. We don't talk about our lives anymore. And just be honest with our life, and ask for help. The information around HIV is readily available. We spend a great deal of time, as we said earlier, trying to look for an out, or, That's not me; I don't have to worry about it.

That's you. And so, worry about it. Put some thought into it. And do your research and educate yourselves, and then educate someone else.

And with that, this interview comes to a close. Thank you, Monique, for speaking with me.

This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

Kellee Terrell is the former news editor for TheBody.com and TheBodyPRO.com.


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This podcast is a part of the series HIV Frontlines. To subscribe to this series, click here.


This article was provided by TheBody.com. It is a part of the publication HIV Frontlines.
 
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