November 15, 2010
For our World AIDS Day 2010 section, we wanted to capture the diversity of the AIDS community. So, we reached out to people across the world -- mostly those who have never written for us before -- and asked them to guest blog. These columns are written by people who are living with HIV, have been affected by HIV, or work in the field.
In my 14 years as Founder/CEO of Aniz, Inc., it has not been uncommon to see a grandmother, mother and daughter, all HIV positive, in one or another of the multiple treatment programs offered by Aniz, Inc. In some cases, each of the women believed she was the only HIV-positive member of the family.
I have witnessed this experience everywhere from the small rural towns of Mississippi to our headquarters in metropolitan Atlanta. And each time the question is: "Why haven't these Women of Color disclosed their status?" Well often the answer is:
"You don't put your business all out in the streets."
"You don't air your family's dirty laundry."
Who hasn't been told these things at some point in his/her childhood? Our families have always requested that we respect their privacy, but in the African-American community our need for privacy has morphed into something more insidious, a "veil of secrecy." So instead of disclosing her status, we have women in our programs who say:
"I would rather die than someone find out I have HIV"
And sadly, African-American women are dying. In the South, African-American women represent the vast majority of women who are HIV positive. According to the latest Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) data, 1 in 30 African-American women will be diagnosed with HIV in her lifetime. HIV/AIDS is the third leading cause of death for women between the ages of 35-44, and the fourth leading cause for women aged 25-34 and 45-54, surpassing diabetes, stroke and kidney disease. Yet, we are still afraid to talk about it.
Why? Depending upon how the women contracted the virus, society may view her in two very different lights: either the "victim," an object of pity; or the "villain," to be scorned, cast out, a "jezebel." She is the "victim" if she is a "Christian" women whose husband/boyfriend was philandering or worse, on the "down low." She is the villain if contracted the virus through IV drug use, prostitution or having multiple partners.
Be it victim or villain, either way the legacy of the "Strong Black Woman" or "Superwoman" is tarnished. Thus, her HIV status is unlikely to ever be disclosed and she will forever wear the veil of secrecy. Her status becomes something to be ashamed of, something to hide, or something to feel guilty about.
So starting with this year's World AIDS Day, as we highlight the issue of HIV/AIDS and discuss the plight of women internationally, we need to take a moment to look at what is happening in our own backyards. We need to start removing the veil of secrecy from African-American women. We need to examine the patriarchal structure that judges her for not having a man but victimizes her for the men she must choose from (drug users, incarcerated, "down low"). We need to examine interventions that say "use condoms" but don't address financial survival or domestic abuse. We need to examine the burden of being a Strong Black Woman without the educational or economic resources to support herself or her family. We need to be addressing that underlying the guilt, the shame, the "stigma" is often untreated addiction, abuse and depression.
Finally, we need to be ready to tell her she is a beautiful woman, that HIV can be treated and she can have a normal life, and that it is OK to take the veil off now.
Zina Age is the founder and CEO of Aniz, Inc., a community-based organization with branches in Georgia, Mississippi and Louisiana.