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The Women's Collective Reacts to Heterosexual Study

By Candace Y.A. Montague

July 3, 2012

The Women's Collective says it's not just about sex when fighting HIV. Photo credit: The Women's Collective.

The Women's Collective says it's not just about sex when fighting HIV. Photo credit: The Women's Collective.

This guest op-ed was written by Toni Holness of The Women’s Collective.

The Women's Collective, located in Northeast Washington, D.C., is the latest group to offer a reaction to the 2011 Epidemiology Report and the study of Heterosexual Relationships and HIV from D.C. HAHSTA. Patricia Nalls founded the non-profit organization in 1993 to meet the needs of low income, marginalized women and girls of color in the District who are living with or at risk for contracting HIV/AIDS and other Sexually Transmitted Infections. A few alarming statistics came from the heterosexual study including the fact that the rate among heterosexual women in the District rose from 6.3% in 2008 to 12.1% in 2010. In this opinion editorial, Toni Holness of TWC says (and this Examiner agrees) it's not just about sex.

In its recent report on heterosexual relationships and HIV in Washington, D.C., the Department of Health issued disturbing statistics for poor black women. The report found that among some poor black women, the HIV infection rate almost doubled since 2008 and some communities of women were about three times more likely to be HIV positive than their male counterparts.

Even more disappointing than the statistics was the report's exclusive focus on sexual activity, monogamy, and condom use, with barely any mention of the socioeconomic factors that predispose women to HIV infection. For example, the report closes with three recommendations for individuals -- know your and your partner's status, know what "committed" means in your relationship, and use condoms. The study's heavy emphasis on sexual behavior erroneously suggests that the sexual behavior of poor black women is the start and end of the epidemic; that by having too much sex, or the wrong kind of sex, these women have created and exacerbated the epidemic plaguing them.


For agencies working on the ground, such as The Women's Collective, the reality of the HIV epidemic demands a more comprehensive approach, taking account for the myriad socioeconomic stressors that cause women to become infected, prevent them from getting tested, and keep them from accessing treatment or receiving adequate care. Consider, for example, that women are often the primary caregivers for children and extended family members. As a result, women frequently forego personal care, such as HIV testing and treatment, opting instead to feed, clothe, and care for their families. For the many women balancing household obligations on limited budgets, the time, transportation and costs of getting tested or treated are prohibitively high.

Other challenges include transportation expenses, childcare, food costs, gender-based violence, and the dearth of affordable housing. The DOH report acknowledges "exchange partners" as persons who have sex in exchange for money, housing, or other needs. Yet, the report fails to address the root socioeconomic causes of exchange sex. In order to stem the epidemic, we must begin to ask the tough questions, such as "Why do people have sex in exchange for housing?" and "How can we ensure adequate, affordable housing to create more and better options?"

Unless and until policymakers take an honest look at the socioeconomic minefield facing poor black women in the District, condom promotion and HIV testing programs alone will not quell the epidemic.

For more information about the Women's Collective, click here.

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