March 9, 2012
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.
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 TheBody.com and TheBodyPRO.com.
Follow Kellee on Twitter: @kelleent.
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