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HIV/AIDS Resource Center for Women
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Wanted: Feminist Warriors to Fight HIV/AIDS

While AIDS Is Killing Women of Color in the U.S., the Women's Movement Appears to Be M.I.A.

August 16, 2010

"How many of you believe that you are at risk for HIV?" I asked the 50 young women sitting in front of me.

Only a few hands went up.

"That's all?"

These women had crammed themselves into a small lecture room at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for the WAM! (Women, Action, and the Media) conference in 2009. They were sitting in on my session about why and how feminist journalists should cover HIV.

Later I inquired, "Who thinks AIDS is a women's issue?"

These incredibly bright feminists -- mostly white college students -- just looked at me.

I knew there was a theoretical disconnect between the feminist movement and the HIV/AIDS epidemic, but this was the first time I had been confronted by it face-to-face. And as we began dissecting their oblivion, it became painfully clear: Because AIDS wasn't ravaging them, it wasn't on their radar. One of the participants even made a comment that the Lifetime movie Girl, Positive was unrealistic because the two white characters -- played by 90210's Jennie Garth and the actress Andrea Bowen who plays Teri Hatcher's daughter on Desperate Housewives -- both had HIV.

While I didn't agree with the logic behind their complacency, they were right about one thing: Women like them are not overwhelmingly testing positive -- it's women of color like me who bear the brunt. While we only make up a combined 25 percent of the U.S. female population, we account for 82 percent of all female HIV/AIDS cases in the U.S.

But if this disease is affecting and killing women, why are we not talking about it?

Ain't we all women?

What's interesting is that from a global perspective, many experts recognize that HIV is such a feminist issue. Whether it's physical and sexual violence; being economically dependent on men; being trafficked into sex work; an inability to negotiate condom use; or lack of access to education, prevention and contraception, a woman's vulnerability to contracting HIV is directly related to the gender inequality she faces.

And strategies to change that reality -- albeit a constant work in progress, imperfect and underfunded -- have been slowly evolving to follow suit. In countries such as South Africa, Kenya and India, money is being channeled to fund programs for women addressing economic dependency; to fund educational and skill-building classes; and to develop culturally competent condom negotiation approaches.

Science is also getting on the same page. Last month, at the XVIII International AIDS Conference in Vienna, two researchers presented a study in which they found early signs that a microbicide -- in this case, a gel spiked with Viread (tenofovir) -- might be able to cut a woman's risk of contracting HIV by as much as 54 percent. This is amazing news for women who cannot negotiate condom use with their partners. More work needs to be done, but this is promising.

While progress is being made, there are still gender-related biases in the HIV community. The United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) and the ATHENA Network released a report suggesting that sexism plays a factor in who is being asked to the table, how strategies are being developed that affect women, and the astounding lack of female leadership in HIV policy making. Among the many things they suggested, they believe that in order to raise the visibility of women living with HIV, it's crucial for women's advocacy groups to work in unity with HIV groups.

So it's clear that the epidemic is screaming for a feminist intervention. Yet here in the States, you barely hear a peep.

To be fair, there are a few feminist groups that occasionally talk about HIV, as well as grant-appointing groups -- such as the New York Women's Foundation -- that fund HIV organizations. And it's not as if black and Latino feminists are waiting for permission: Organizations such as SisterLove, Inc., incorporate reproductive health and feminist approaches in their own HIV work. But as a platform issue, AIDS has not been taken on as ferociously as abortion and other reproductive health issues. And that doesn't make sense, because anytime we are talking about the consequences of unprotected sex, we need to be talking about HIV.

So why the oversight? Maybe because HIV was dubbed a "gay, white man's disease" for so long that women's orgs are just slow to recognize it's a real problem, don't know how to incorporate its message or have their own stigma around the disease. Or maybe because the AIDS world self-segregates and doesn't do the best job of letting outsiders in to offer their expertise.

Or perhaps we need to look to the obvious. There has been a history of racism and classism, especially during the second wave of feminism in the '70s. Many feminists of color -- such as Barbara Smith, Demita Frazier and Michele Wallace -- strongly argued that white, upper-class feminist leaders disregarded their concerns. Swept to the side were issues such as forced sterilizations, prison rights, economic instability and how oppressions other than gender impacted women's lives.

While it may be unpopular to talk about, these biases still exist. And the lack of visible support for HIV/AIDS exposes one of the movement's biggest weaknesses: its difficulty with successfully addressing issues that deal with the interconnections of class, race, gender and sexuality.

The first step in making change is for movement leaders to acknowledge this gap and bring their expertise to the table, because the HIV epidemic cannot be fought merely on a clinical front. The social component is crucial. And that gender piece is vital in saving the lives of all women.

If that doesn't happen, I don't know what it will take. Perhaps U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had it right when she said, during a Democratic primary debate in 2007, that if white women were dying of AIDS at the same rate as black women, "there would be an outraged outcry." Maybe then people would pay attention.

As a feminist, I hope that doesn't have to be the catalyst. But it's hard to deny the fact that our neophytes are being "taught" that if it isn't happening to them, it's not really happening.

Kellee Terrell is's former news editor. The views reflected in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of itself.

More From This Resource Center

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This article was provided by TheBody.
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Reader Comments:

Comment by: Brooke Davidoff (Seattle, WA) Fri., Oct. 21, 2011 at 2:33 pm UTC
I could NOT agree more! I have NO idea how long I had it or who I got it from. Being on birth control since I was 19 and I was NEVER asked or told to have the test done, until I was 31 and pregnant. Apparently white Jewish girls are not at risk?

There is no mention of it in the media no outcry letting women know it's REAL, it's out there in the straight community and they are at RISK. Where are the PSA's for young women?
Reply to this comment

Comment by: Brooke Davidoff (Seattle, WA) Fri., Oct. 21, 2011 at 1:11 pm UTC
I could NOT agree more! I have NO idea how long I had it or who I got it from. Being on birth control since I was 19 and I was NEVER asked or told to have the test done, until I was 31 and pregnant. Apparently white Jewish girls are not at risk?

There is no mention of it in the media no outcry letting women know it's REAL, it's out there in the straight community and they are at RISK. Where are the PSA's for young women?
Reply to this comment

Comment by: Mary (Indiana) Tue., Aug. 24, 2010 at 10:32 am UTC
As a HIV+ white woman in her late 30's I have to agree that we have somewhat fallen by the wayside. But at the same time we women can just blend in with the HIV neg world and wear our pain on the inside. We also have the concerns of our families responses to our status and sometimes have to stay hidden so that that stigma doesn't affect our children. I would love to be a warrier but I am held down by the fear for my children.
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Comment by: Phyllis (Gulfport, MS) Sat., Aug. 21, 2010 at 6:55 pm UTC
I like this! Hope it's ok to still this quote. Wanted. I can learn a lot from you. Now I must ask the teenagers that I speak to, how many are at risk of contracting HIV or developing AIDS for those who are already positive.
Reply to this comment

Comment by: Bud H. (New York, New York) Sat., Aug. 21, 2010 at 4:19 pm UTC
Interestingly, this article takes a different track than I thought the "MIA" portion of the title would take it. On many levels the article is on point. What is missing from feminist warriors to fight HIV are; HIV positive females. I have been facilitating HIV groups for gays and straights for over 15 years now. Gay HIV+ men have always been out in full force, since the beginning of the epidemic. HIV+ heterosexual women seem to have assimilated back into the HIV negative world some time after sero-conversion.
There are a few stark markers for this phenomena; HIV+ women are having babies in numbers previously unseen, and most often these children are out of wedlock. Were the fathers positive or negative? The world will never know. Support groups and social networks for heterosexuals living with HIV have women participating at ratios well below men and at ratios well below 1 to 10 female to male.
Until HIV+ women in general live positive lives and not assimilate back into the HIV negative world, few feminist warriors will sound the out rage of living an HIV positive life, when it has become so easy for HIV+ women to live long and reproduce.
Mean while HIV+ males gay or straight, have less choice about reproduction and living a closeted life. is one place for straight folks to live positive well adjusted HIV lives. And is a good place for gay positive men to go to.
Our potetial HIV positive feminist warriors need stop assimmilating or at least scream out rage over the contined spread of HIV in any and all communities; but particularly among women in a country like America.
HIV is entirely preventable yet some 45,000 new cases of HIV are reported every year here in America. With a growing proportion of these new cases among women, particularly women of color! We must stop the madness.
Reply to this comment

Comment by: teresa (chicago) Sat., Aug. 21, 2010 at 1:55 pm UTC
I am a 46 yr old white middle class mom with hiv. my husband of 20 yrs gave me the virus in 1997. You think you are ignored as young blk woman with hiv. Try finding a support group with middle age middle class white hiv woman! We do not exist. Just ask the media. How many woman have cheating husbands out there? Are they being educated on protection? Are they being educated on being tested as soon as you know he is cheating? I can not be the only nieve wife and mother out there. My best friend was married to her husband for 25 yrs. He just informed her and their kids that he is gay and wants out of the marriage. How do I tell her GET TESTED NOW!!! We are two small town middle America woman. We don't think about the need for testing. Middle America needs an education and quick. They can know longer think "that can't happen to me". They have the misconception that if you have hiv you either do drugs or are a prostitute. For now this small town middle age white mom walks a lonely path. Woman of all races ages and regions need to be educated. We can not afford to exclude anyone from this disease. Thank you Body
Reply to this comment

Comment by: John M (Portland, OR) Thu., Aug. 19, 2010 at 8:12 pm UTC
I think this article is spot on, with the exception of "Or maybe because the AIDS world self-segregates and doesn't do the best job of letting outsiders in to offer their expertise." As an HIV+ individual, I think that the HIV world doesn't necessarily self-segregate so much as we haven't been given the choice to integrate. The level of discrimination across all communities still forces HIV+ individuals to the margins of society.

I also want to recognize and applaud the loving generosity of women (especially lesbians) for their role in the early days of the epidemic. Women really stepped up and cared for countless men as they laid dying throughout the 80's and early 90's. At a time when few would help, they were there for us men. I feel that much of that has been lost with the younger generations coming forward.
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