01 December 2010

World AIDS Day: Keeping Women Front and Center

December 1, 2010 is World AIDS Day -- a day when people around the world are encouraged to reflect and take action on behalf of the global fight to end AIDS.

At present, an estimated 33 million people worldwide are infected with the HIV virus, nearly 16 million of whom are women, and more than 2 million of whom are children. Those are staggering numbers, but new data from the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) offers at least some reason for hope: the study shows that both new infections and deaths from AIDS-related illnesses are dropping worldwide -- a result, experts believe, of increased education around safer sex practices, particularly among the young, for whom rates of new infection have fallen by as much as 25 percent in some nations.

"Investments in the AIDS response are paying off," Michel Sidibe, executive director of UNAIDS, told CNN. But he also warned against putting too much weight on what has been accomplished, lest we forget that this epidemic remains very real -- and deadly. "[These] gains are fragile," Sidibe said. "The challenge now is how we can all work to accelerate progress."

HIV/AIDS activists in the US report that there has been a lot of success in this country as well. In fact, POZ magazine called the past year a "banner one for waging war on AIDS in America," and detailed a number of important policy accomplishments, including: the reopening of the Office of National AIDS Policy; the launch of a National HIV/AIDS Strategy, formulated by experts and advocates from across the US, and adopted by the Obama Administration; approval of the Affordable Care Act ("a.k.a. the health care reform bill that will insure many who have HIV, albeit not until 2014"); and the lifting of the travel ban for HIV-positive people entering the US. The Centers for Disease Control also reported that a record number of people were tested for HIV in 2009.

But while the Obama Administration and certain members of Congress have been refreshingly receptive to the strategies and gaps identified by advocates on the ground, activists like Naina Khanna, of Ms. Foundation grantee, WORLD, caution us against being too satisfied with the progress that's been made. [See Naina's video interview on POZ.]

First and foremost: Black women and Latinas still represent over 80 percent of AIDS diagnoses among women, even though they make up just 25 percent of the US female population. Motivated by this reality, Ms. Foundation grantees -- grassroots groups led by and for HIV-positive women -- promote policies and programs to address the disproportionate and still highly invisible impact that HIV/AIDS has on women, particularly women of color. It is true that the US government and institutions like the CDC are becoming better at identifying who is most at risk and why, including taking stock of social and economic factors like domestic violence and poverty that fuel the epidemic. But we still have a long way to go in terms of reforming how -- and whom -- we treat to prevent HIV.

One way women are putting pressure on the government to continually improve its response to HIV/AIDS? Today in Washington, the National Minority AIDS Council, the National Women and AIDS Collective (NWAC, the first and only national policy network of organizations led by and for women living with and affected by HIV/AIDS, formerly incubated at the Ms. Foundation, and led by current and former grantees) and the US Positive Women's Network, a project of WORLD, joined Congresswoman Barbara Lee (D-CA) to host a special Congressional briefing on the needs of women of color in HIV/AIDS prevention and care. Together, they represent a national movement driven by women with HIV who are advancing solutions based on their own lived experience and expertise.

And while, yes, there's still much to be done, women HIV/AIDS activists have been gaining significant ground in the last few years (case and point, the launch of NWAC as an independent non-profit). They're keeping their eyes trained on how women in the US are uniquely impacted by HIV/AIDS, and are a forceful reminder that it is absolutely essential to have women affected by the epidemic before Congress and on policymaking tables to make sure they are much better served. 

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