Positive Women's Network - USA (PWN-USA), a national membership body of women living with HIV, is shocked and horrified to learn of media reports that a young woman in Texas was brutally murdered, allegedly as a result of her HIV status.
According to media coverage, Justin Welch strangled 30-year-old Elisha Henson "when he learned she had HIV after she gave him oral sex."
"This news is sickening, devastating, and heartbreaking to women living with HIV," says PWN-USA Executive Director Naina Khanna. "Not only does it reveal the lack of value placed on the lives of women with HIV; it also shows that ignorance and misinformation about how HIV is and is not transmitted are quite literally deadly. The risk of a man acquiring HIV by receiving oral sex from a woman is so vanishingly low as to be virtually impossible."
This is the second brutal murder of a woman due to HIV status within two years in Texas that has made mainstream media headlines. In September 2012, following the heinous murder of Dallas resident Cicely Bolden, women leaders living with HIV and our allies mourned Bolden's death and condemned media coverage that cast her consensual sex partner, who was her murderer, as a victim.
"This is a travesty," says Venita Ray, an advocate and woman living with HIV in Houston, Texas. "After Cicely's murder, women in Texas were already afraid to disclose their HIV status. Now this? Stigma is literally killing women, more than 30 years into this epidemic."
Although these two cases have received a high level of media attention, we know that violence in the lives of women with HIV is all too common. A survey conducted by PWN-USA last year found that 72% of respondents were survivors of intimate partner violence. Large studies have shown that women living with HIV suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) at rates five times higher than the general population of U.S. women, and experience various types of lifetime abuse at two to six times the national rate.
Our hearts and our prayers go out to Elisha Henson's loved ones. We stand with Elisha and all women living with HIV who face stigma, discrimination, and violence in its many forms. But equally important, we fight for solutions. If Justin Welch had known it was impossible to acquire HIV by receiving oral sex, would he have killed? Comprehensive, accurate sex education is desperately needed, reduces risk of unwanted pregnancy and transmission of sexually transmitted infections -- and as we see in this instance, can literally save lives.
Ignorance is not bliss. It is deadly. We must do better.
On behalf of women living with HIV who face violence and even death due to misinformation and ignorance, PWN-USA recommends the following calls to action:
- Support the repeal of laws that criminalize HIV status: These laws are frequently based on outdated understandings and unfounded fears of HIV transmission risks. They do not prevent HIV transmission or promote public health, but instead foster environments of hostility and brutality toward people living with HIV.
- Pressure local health systems and law enforcement to implement recent White House recommendations to address violence and trauma in the lives of women living with HIV.
- Based on these same federal recommendations, ensure that violence and murder based on HIV status are prosecuted as hate crimes.
- Encourage responsible reporting by the media of Elisha Henson's tragic murder and other cases involving people living with HIV: Coverage should be based on up-to-date knowledge of HIV transmission, must not portray people with HIV as predatory or irresponsible, and must uphold the human rights and dignity of people living with HIV.
We grieve for Elisha, and we will fight until violence in the lives of all women with HIV comes to an end.