The Political Is Personal: Finding a Home as an HIV Activist
May 4, 2012
A couple of years ago, I did not know what advocacy and activism really meant. I understood that I was drawn toward social justice issues and ideas of equality. I understood that I wanted to walk on a personal and professional road guided by human rights. I did not know what that looked like for me, however. I could not connect all the dots, especially around HIV. I grew up in the 2nd generation of HIV -- a generation that had HIV medications and that institutionalized HIV prevention, care, and treatment programs. Apparently it was not an emergency in the U.S. anymore, unlike the rest of the world.
My perspective changed, however, when I received an HIV-positive diagnosis. As a young woman in her early twenties I was devastated. It does not matter if it's the 2000s. In that shock after hearing the results, you feel like you're in the 1980s. I slowly inched my way towards learning about women and HIV issues -- at first I was looking for support, for community, for the opportunity to talk to another woman living with HIV.
I got involved in the U.S. Positive Women's Network (PWN) and then it clicked. My story and my experiences are not unlike many other women's experiences around the country and across the globe. The personal is political. Being a part of this network of fierce and courageous HIV-positive women and allies taught me that we cannot talk about curbing the epidemic without talking about the fact that over two-thirds of women experience some form of intimate partner violence for the first time in their lives before the age of 25; or the reality that about 1 in 7 men experience severe physical violence by an intimate partner at some point in their lifetime (CDC National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey).
We cannot talk about curbing the epidemic without recognized that women living with HIV in the U.S., disproportionately African-American women and Latinas, get sick faster, die sooner, and have poorer health outcomes. The South, a region of historical oppression and neglect, is experiencing a human rights crisis. In some counties and jurisdictions, the rate of women living with HIV exceeds the national rate of approximately 25%. Broken health care systems, poverty, and gender-based violence fuel the epidemic. In an environment where gender, race, and geography are more potent risk factors than individual risk behavior, we must ask ourselves how we are addressing root causes.
We cannot talk about curbing the epidemic without recognizing that homophobia and transphobia run deep. In Oakland, a trans woman was shot in her car on April 29. Authorities are investigating if the shooting was a hate crime. Thanks to Tiffany Woods, Trans Vision, and Tri-City Health Center, the story is framed to respect and not sensationalize. In Philadelphia, public transportation passes require a "F" or "M" to indicate gender -- a regulation that has put many people at risk for discrimination on buses and trolleys. Thanks to Philadelphia Riders Against Gender Exclusion, this regulation is being considered for removal.
These are a few of the issues that we need to take action on when advocating for women living with and vulnerable to HIV. More importantly, women living with HIV must be in leadership roles to ensure that prevention, care, and treatment plans reflect and prioritize the realities of women's lives. By supporting, preparing, and training women living with HIV, we invest in our future, our communities, and ourselves.
Sonia Rastogi is advocacy coordinator at the U.S. Positive Women's Network, a project of WORLD.
This article was provided by AIDS United. Visit AIDS United's website to find out more about their activities and publications.
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