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The Rising HIV Rates Among Young Women and Girls of Color: What's Going On? Part Two

February 10, 2011

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Kellee Terrell: Not to harp on the damning news, but I do want to talk about what people are doing around young women and girls that is working. Jennifer, what are some of the things that HEAT is doing that you feel have a positive impact in prevention?

Jennifer Irwin: A big thing that works was what Claire mentioned earlier [in part one of the roundtable]: peer-to-peer model programs. I think they work really, really well. When young people are given education, knowledge and the ability to talk to their peers, that makes a big difference.

A lot of our prevention and outreach work is done by staff who are peers of the women that they're reaching out to, in terms of the same age range, and we've also empowered a lot of our HIV-positive youth to help us in reaching out to other youths. I think it's very powerful when you have young people reaching out to young people, particularly when you're dealing with HIV-positive young women, who sometimes don't fall into any camp. I mean, they always get left out of the prevention camp, and they always get left out of the prevention programs. They sort of are a little bit in no man's land in terms of who is looking out for them, or who is providing services for them, other than a care program.

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I think what's really powerful is one of our programs called the Power Program. In this program, we have HIV-positive peers reaching out to young women who are at risk of falling out of care, or who have fallen out of care, or who are not being compliant with their medication or their treatment. The peer educators go out and talk to the women, meeting them where they are at.

I think that's a big piece of it that's really successful: going out and meeting these young women where they're at. If they're not in care, or they've fallen out of care, or they're not taking their health seriously enough to worry about it, then there are reasons behind it. And so a lot of what our positive peers do is they go to the young women's homes, meet them for coffee, call them on the phone, text them and communicate with them on Facebook and MySpace.

With this program they have camaraderie and a great support system. The peer leaders tell them, "Listen. I've been there. This has happened to me. I've been depressed like you. I've been this. I've been that. But, here, listen: This is really what I think would help you. Or let me help support you. Or let me escort you back to the clinic," and things like that.

I think that's one thing that works really, really well: young women reaching out to other young women. That's one thing that the Coalition does a great job at, is really empowering young women. I think that's a very successful model. Right Claire?

Claire Simon: Definitely, I think that's a very important component. I think the other component, which is what the Coalition has also focused on, is engaging providers who work with youth. Because, as a person who works in that literacy program, housing program, or whatever, I then have the resources so when a young person comes to me, I feel empowered. I feel like I have the information. I think that is also really key.

It also breaks this whole idea of "silos": We're not the only ones at the table anymore, talking about this issue. We have a host of other folks who care about young people, who work with young people, having these same conversations in the room, addressing these issues -- such as the role of media, homelessness, teen pregnancy, STD rates and juvenile justice. We're able to have these full-fledged conversations; there's no longer this elephant in the room that just sits there. And that has also been key.

I think there's still some way to go in terms of how we really build these partnerships to influence funding, and influence how this work is being done, by talking about social networking, social factors, and social structures. But those are two of the most important things: get young women at the table, let them share the message, let them talk about it in ways that are real for them; and also, engage their allies who are adults. Because that also gives them another support system, so when somebody does say something, they know that they have an adult who can vouch for them, who can talk to them, and who can validate what their experience is.

Jennifer Irwin: If I can add one thing, in terms of the HIV-positive women that are part of our program: I think what's very empowering for them is our whole model of care. Our model of care really puts the power of decision-making in the youth's hands, in terms of whether they take their medicines, whether they decide to have babies, whether they stay with partners, whether they don't stay with partners. And I think a big piece of that is really the lack of judgment -- like Kellee mentioned earlier, we're a culture of judgment, in many ways.

It's crucial to pull that whole judgment piece out of the care that you're giving. No matter if in your mind you're thinking, "Oh, my God; it is so crazy that she's doing this. She's hurting herself."

If they want to have a baby, we talk to them about how they do it safely. We don't sit there and say, "Don't have a kid. You don't need a kid. Oh, my God. Why would you ever want a kid?" So I think for some of these women, it's the first time in many of their lives that they are making independent decisions about their lives in a protected and supportive way. And I think that works very well for a lot of the young women who are in care with us.

Kellee Terrell: Well, ladies, I think our time is just about up. This was an amazing conversation, and hopefully, one of many conversations we're going to be having at TheBody.com about the interconnections of gender oppression and HIV, and the epidemic among women in this country.

Thank you for taking the time out of your busy schedules to speak with me.

This transcript has been edited for clarity.

Kellee Terrell is the former news editor for TheBody.com and TheBodyPRO.com.

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This article was provided by TheBody.com.
 
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