WORLD Turns 15
I would like to dedicate this issue of the WORLD newsletter to them: HIV positive women who would not lay down and die, but instead mobilized, supported one another and made a profound contribution in the HIV epidemic among women.
Fifteen years ago this year a small group of HIV positive women gathered in WORLD founder Rebecca Denison's living room to write a newsletter. Despite the fear that they had all been handed down death sentences with their HIV diagnoses, these women were driven to find other women with the message, "You are not alone". Some of the women who sat in the living room are alive today and some are not. I would like to dedicate this issue of the WORLD newsletter to them: HIV positive women who would not lay down and die, but instead mobilized, supported one another and made a profound contribution in the HIV epidemic among women. We who work at WORLD today thank them for their courage, resilience and foresight and are honored to follow them in this work.
If we fast-forward the picture of HIV among women from 1991 to today, it is a devastating scenario: 20 million women infected worldwide with women soon to be the global majority. Gender inequality, violence and poverty have been fuel for the HIV fire among women. Recently, several of us at WORLD were able to attend the International AIDS Conference in Toronto. Women from around the globe who are doing amazing work with very few resources inspired us. However, there was a theme of far too many women having little power to prevent HIV on a personal level. Many of these women live in countries where life-saving drugs are not accessible, women have no power to negotiate safe sex, and revealing an HIV positive diagnosis can lead to physical violence and rejection by family and community. It is not uncommon for women who have been infected by husbands to be blamed and punished severely by the extended family (see Lisungu Chieza's cover story). Lack of inheritance and property rights for women mean that once the husband dies the wife is cast out of the family without resources, often while caring for small children.
On a national level, we have infection rates among African American women that rival those of some developing countries. We still have immigration laws that ban HIV positive people from entering the US, with few exceptions. Women are still underrepresented in clinical trials and pharmaceutical companies are far too slow in developing pediatric formulations for HIV drugs. For those of us who attended the Toronto conference, it was painfully clear that there is an enormous amount of work to be done by and for HIV positive women everywhere and a renewed sense of urgency is needed in this fight.
Where do we all find the inspiration and hope to ramp up our efforts in the face of devastating circumstances for millions of women worldwide?
We can find it in Louise Binder, the only HIV positive woman plenary speaker in Toronto. When Louise was cut short in her speech about the need of HIV positive women globally due to long-running speeches by HIV- men, she refused to yield the stage until she was done. When the moderator cut the power to Louise's microphone she continued her speech, yelling it out to the 5,000 audience members. Soon the chant, "Let Louise finish!" came from the audience and the microphone was turned back on. Like the women who started WORLD, Louise refuses to be silenced.
We find inspiration in the women of Uganda who have created peer outreach and support programs for HIV positive women who cannot leave their market stalls to get tested and treated for HIV because they work 16 hour days simply to feed their families. These peers go to the market to provide support, education and testing for women and are in the process of building a childcare center for the children of these vendors. Like the women who started WORLD, the Ugandan women are creating programs that leverage the expertise and wisdom that HIV positive women have to offer in finding solutions within the epidemic.
Hilda Perez-Vasquez and the HIV positive women of Collectiva Sol in Mexico inspire us. These women have refused to be ignored by their government. They have raised their voices to demand that HIV positive women be a priority and have now received funding to hold their first educational and support retreat. It was clear in meeting these women in Toronto that they face an uphill battle at home, but they will not be ignored and disregarded any longer. They find their strength in each other.
In meeting these women, hearing their stories and seeing the results of their tireless efforts we come home knowing that despite the overwhelming circumstances facing HIV positive women worldwide, there is a irrepressible human spirit among them that is growing alongside this epidemic. This is the same spirit that was present in Rebecca Denison's living room 15 years ago and it is the same one that carries us forward today.
Back to November 2006 Table of Contents.
This article was provided by Women Organized to Respond to Life-Threatening Diseases. It is a part of the publication WORLD Newsletter. Visit WORLD's website to find out more about their activities and publications.