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When Will Male HIV/AIDS Leaders Make Women and Girls a Priority?

March 9, 2012

Kellee Terrell

Kellee Terrell

Last month, I had the honor of attending an open meeting of the President's Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS (PACHA) at the White House. The focus of the meeting was a topic I hold dear: how the domestic epidemic is impacting women and girls.

The all-day meeting boasted an impressive list of presenters: UCLA's Gail Wyatt, M.D., the National Institutes of Health's Gina Brown, SisterLove's Dazon Dixon Diallo, and Stroger Hospital's Mardge Cohen, to name a few. This dynamic group spoke on a range of topics, including the impact that PrEP could have on women, the link between past sexual abuse and HIV transmission, the need for more female-oriented clinical research, and how gender oppression and violence make women more vulnerable to this disease.

And while nothing new was presented research-wise, that didn't stop a majority of the crowd (myself included) from ferociously taking notes, nodding our heads in unison and even blurting out the occasional "Yes, yes..."

For me, a feminist since the age of 7, listening to these women was not only inspiring, but it further drilled into my head that 30 years into the epidemic women and girls continue to be an afterthought. Despite the fact that HIV rates among women have tripled since 1985, PACHA admitted that in its 17-year existence, this was the first meeting specifically dedicated to women and girls.

That's pretty damn disappointing.

Perhaps not as disappointing as the fact that the much-hailed National HIV/AIDS Strategy lacked any concrete and specific strategies aimed at addressing women who are living with or at risk for HIV/AIDS. And this makes absolutely no sense given that women make up 51 percent of the U.S. population and 23 percent of the HIV/AIDS cases in the country.

Think about it: If the Strategy's purpose is to address disparities and lower new infections 25 percent by 2015, how is that really going to happen without making concrete strides with women? You can't change communities if you don't start with the ladies. But good luck with that ...

Recently, AIDS 2012 announced the 15 speakers for its plenary panels, and only six are women -- and none of these women is openly living with HIV/AIDS. This is particularly problematic because UNAIDS estimates that of the 34 million adults worldwide living with HIV and AIDS at the end of 2010, half were women.


It's this type of "boy's club" mentality that prompted the Positive Women's Network to write a letter to the AIDS 2012 Conference Coordinating Committee last year asking them not to forget about women. This letter, which was endorsed by more than 20 women's groups from across the globe, had six requests, which included making women and girls a priority, ensuring that no less than 50 percent of the AIDS 2012 program content is dedicated to women and girls' issues, and allocating no less than 50 percent of scholarships to support the participation of women and young women, especially for those who are positive. Time will only tell if their requests fell on deaf ears.

What's incredibly sad is that this letter even had to be written in the first place. You would think that the decision makers behind one of the largest international HIV/AIDS conferences would automatically want the face of this global pandemic to be heavily represented.

Guess not.

And this issue isn't about women "whining because they can't play with the big boys." If women are not included, if their voices are not heard and if the life experiences of women living with this disease are not taken into account, especially at the policy-making level, everyone loses.

This point was so eloquently made in an eye-opening interview E. Tyler Crone, ATHENA's coordinating director, gave me back in 2010. Crone was clear: Too often women -- both HIV positive and negative -- are disrespected by male leaders. Whether it's acting as if having women around is men doing us a favor, being asked last minute to take part in a high level meeting on the other side of the world, or not receiving the necessary funding to continue work that is proven to have an impact on women's lives, women's participation in the process is often undermined.

But looking at the current climate we live in, this type of treatment shouldn't surprise us.

Conservative radio show hosts can call us "sluts" for wanting health insurance to cover birth control. Hip-hop stars give young men online instructions on how to sexually assault young girls. Billboards manipulate us by telling us that our wombs are not safe at Planned Parenthood. Adults who should know better blame 11-year-olds for being gang raped by grown men. And thanks to Bravo and VH1, we are consistently depicted as gold digging, emotionally unstable, petty and extremely violent creatures who will do anything for a man's attention (or a pair of red bottom shoes).

We are drowning in a culture that seriously devalues women and unfortunately the HIV/AIDS movement is part of that same culture.

So as National Women and Girls HIV/AIDS Awareness Day approaches, I challenge male leaders to stop with the sappy pseudo-empowering rhetoric about how women and girls can overcome this epidemic and how our voices really do matter. Frankly, it's quite condescending and pretty annoying. Instead, I wish they would own their past mistakes and make a commitment to stop being part of the problem. Because honestly, we will never "get to zero" if the Bill Gateses and the Michel Sidibés of this movement don't check their male privilege at the door and treat us as the equals that we are.

Kellee Terrell is the former news editor for and

Follow Kellee on Twitter: @kelleent.

Copyright © 2012 Remedy Health Media, LLC. All rights reserved.

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This article was provided by TheBody.
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Reader Comments:

Comment by: Kelly Fri., Mar. 16, 2012 at 10:42 pm UTC
Probably about the same time female breast cancer leaders make men a priority.
Reply to this comment

Comment by: Michael (Canada) Thu., Mar. 15, 2012 at 2:02 pm UTC
AIDS is not gender specific- nor is it black or white, gay or straight... It is a virus. If there are aspects that are particular to groups, then it is their obligation to get their stuff together. I for one an tired of female, male bashing. It appears that men always appear to be the problem. There are now enough women in both medicine and the sciences to form cooloitions for their causes.

I ,as a male , I blame women for nothing. If I have a problem, I deal with it.

I don't fight for equality,, I am equal. Maybe you want to start there.

Don't you ever get tired of the blame game... It very old.


Reply to this comment

Comment by: david lulasa (tambua location,hamisi,vihiga.) Tue., Mar. 13, 2012 at 7:51 am UTC
a long journey or living starts with women..thats the one step
Reply to this comment

Comment by: Brooke Davidoff (Seattle, WA) Mon., Mar. 12, 2012 at 2:58 pm UTC
I also could not agree more.

I keep wondering when the women of HIV are going to get a voice to lead us some where. It feels like were the 99% just waiting around for a leader.
Reply to this comment

Comment by: Anna Forbes (Kensington, MS) Mon., Mar. 12, 2012 at 10:05 am UTC
I couldn't agree more, Kellee. See the three briefing papers that will be released shortly by Thirty for Thirty for further documentation of the points you make here. We can prove, "chapter and verse" as they say, the damage this this persistent ignoring of women is doing!
Reply to this comment

Comment by: Paul (los angels) Sat., Mar. 10, 2012 at 5:01 am UTC
Not that women or certain groups are an afterthought.....I believe the primary focus is finding a way to cure and stop HIV/AIDS. With resources and attention being divided like this, no wonder there is no cure found 30 years later.

Instead of worrying about groups being an afterthought, hundreds to thousands die everyday...children in Africa...not just women.

Empower the movement before anything else and progress trickles down to the extinction of this disease. Should the gay community bark also because people like Bill Gates are straight and in heterosexual relationships? Being distracted by trying to empower sectionalizing resources is petty is is just costing more lives....not just women....but humanity as a whole.

Empower the mission, then the rest will follow. And that mission is finding a cure.
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