Positive Organizing Shero: Martha Cameron
Martha Cameron is a lifelong advocate for women and girls living with HIV. Currently, she works at The Women's Collective, where they are mobilizing women living with HIV as advocates and community speakers. I was privileged to speak with Martha and learn more about her upcoming retreat, motivations, and reflections on Women and Girls HIV/AIDS Awareness Day.
This interview is a part of the series Positive Organizing Sheroes -- Highlighting Women Making a Difference. Positive Organizing Project (POP) is supported by Gilead Sciences, Inc. Learn more about POP here!
How you get involved in the HIV field?
I started this work in Zambia Africa, because that where I'm originally from. I worked with a faith based non-profit that worked with women, widows, and orphans called Every Orphan's Hope Ministries. Not all were living with HIV, but all were affected by the HIV epidemic in Zambia. I myself had been diagnosed with HIV and this work gave me purpose and hope. I also ultimately got involved in advocacy which was needed in order to provide for orphans and vulnerable children -- making sure they had access to their basic rights: shelter, food, education.
I ended up getting married to an American Gentleman and moved to the US. I've had two HIV negative children since I've been HIV positive, so I also became a huge advocate of prevention of mother to child transmission and I am an ambassador for the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation.
After I finished my Masters in public health degree and completed a Fellowship with UNAIDS, I joined the Women's Collective (TWC). First I served as their director of policy and advocacy and eventually becoming their director of prevention. I oversee about four prevention programs including testing and linkage to care, PrEP education and referral, social networking strategy, and youth STD school-based testing. We have a great prevention team here, and it is truly teamwork. Working at TWC has been a real journey.
Tell me about your upcoming retreat, Fighting for our Lives, organized through your Positive Organizing Project grant.
The birth of HIV advocacy was rooted in the activism that resulted in the declaration of the Denver principals in 1983. The Denver Principles called for an end to discrimination, and representation and inclusion at all levels of decision making. They also called for privacy, confidentiality, fulfillment and dignity. In the wake of that advocacy came another wave of activism by women who ended up being left out early clinical trials, care and support focused on gay men. Among those trailblazing women was Patricia Nalls, our executive director, who began to advocate for women and children living with HIV and affected by HIV. She was one of the few who came out of her shell in the early days. They started having retreats in the early days called "Fighting for our Lives", symbolic of the banner used when the Denver Principles were declared. In those days, they were fighting to be recognized as women living with HIV and for a seat at the table.
Reviving this retreat could not be more timely in terms of what is going on politically. It's a whole new process of reeducating people on Capitol Hill; making sure that they understand that there have been great advances in treatment, but the face of the epidemic has changed. HIV disproportionately affects African American people, bringing health disparities into the focus. This retreat is an opportunity to make sure that women can articulate those issues and make them aware that now more than ever they need to speak up.
Through this retreat, we also hope to create a speaker's bureau in Washington, DC based on the Denver Principals. We are not just token women -- we want to bring women's stories to the center of the conversation. There has been a lot of interest in this retreat and are super excited about it!
On Women and Girls HIV/AIDS Awareness Day, what do you want people to know about HIV?
First of all, it is really great that this day exists. When we speak about HIV incidence, there is a lot of focus on gay and bisexual men -- rightfully so. But if you compare the burden of a disease on a population, women carry a whole lot more. Women are not always thinking of themselves, they are thinking of their families, young and old, with eldercare and childcare, including grandchildren. Usually, women think of themselves last.
I was recently at a meeting in North Carolina with the International Community of Women Living with HIV, where they shared the statistic that there had been three children known to have been born with HIV in the state in 2016. One of those women happened to be in the audience with her baby. She had traveled two hours to get to that meeting and traveled that same distance to get medication for herself and her baby. She shared that when her baby misses a dose -- because it can be so difficult to give a baby medication -- it can be hard to replace it and she is concerned about her child's health. It makes me sick to my stomach that this can be happening in 21st Century America.
The death rates in the South are highest among women living with HIV. It blows my mind that here in a country where you have some of the best health care systems in the world, there are people suffering because they can't access or afford it. As an immigrant, it humbles me that the trauma and issues faced by African American women here are comparable to African women where I come from. So, I think Women and Girls HIV/AIDS Awareness Day is a really important opportunity to shine a light on how complex the epidemic is for women and girls -- especially of color -- inclusive of sexual health, reproductive rights, violence, and poverty.
How do you stay motivated in this work?
All I have to do is look at my children's and husband's faces every morning. My husband is still HIV negative after 10 years of marriage. He is the most amazing person that I know. He has accepted me and really supports me in this work. And when I look at my beautiful, healthy, very active boys and I think, "that I should be so lucky," as they say. And yet, I don't have to look so far to see a woman who needs support to access health care or her basic rights.
Sometimes this work takes time away from my kids, but that's the small price I have to pay the sacrifice of people that have gone before us. I come from a faith background and I believe that to whom much is given, much is expected. So, the fact that I have been really blessed means that I need to make sure that others get the help that they need as well, I need to give back!
Sarah Hashmall is communications manager at AIDS United.