Nothing makes this more real for us at the Ms. Foundation than when our grantees report how budget cuts will impact -- indeed, threaten -- their own programs and their own communities. For example, just a few weeks ago, the Washington Department of Health decided to cut funding for the state's only women-specific HIV/AIDS education and support program -- a program run by Seattle-based BABES Network-YWCA, our longtime grantee. This decision, BABES tells us, along with an additional funding cut at the county level, will result in a 75 percent reduction in their program budget -- an untenable outcome that will leave hundreds of women without critical support services.
In a press release issued yesterday on National Girls and Women HIV/AIDS Awareness Day, Pat Migliore, an HIV-positive Seattle resident and BABES co-founder, said, "BABES serves 400 women and affected family members every year. This will have a huge consequence for the health of women we are desperately seeking to keep in care."
BABES and other Ms. Foundation grantee organizations led by and for women with HIV/AIDS fear that this recent decision signals the start of a national trend to eliminate other "women-centered" HIV/AIDS support services. Budget constraints already forced another Ms. Foundation grantee, the Women’s Lighthouse Project, a Denver-based organization that served HIV-positive women, to close its doors in November 2010, and other grantees such as Women Alive in Los Angeles, CA have seen critical components of their government funding disappear.
“As funding gets tighter in this new economic climate, we must make sure women’s unique needs don’t fall through the cracks,” says Cynthia Carey-Grant, Executive Director of Women Organized to Respond to Life-threatening Disease (WORLD), an Oakland, CA-based organization and Ms. Foundation grantee that has been serving HIV-positive women since 1991.
Although women make up over 25 percent of new HIV cases, and continue to suffer worse health outcomes than HIV-positive men, there exist -- even before the most recent state budget crises and nationwide economic crisis -- few programs and extremely limited federal, state and local funding dedicated to meet women's specific needs [pdf]. In fact, many of our grantees operate on shoe-string budgets to provide the only women-centered support services in their city, county or state. And there's no doubt how critical these services are: whether it's because they offer peer counseling to help women overcome depression and isolation resulting from the stigma of being HIV-positive, or because they help women access and maintain HIV treatment and care and surmount barriers such as a lack of child care or transportation -- these programs save women's lives.
"Peer support groups are an essential place where women can be connected to a community, where they can be honest about their issues, feel accepted, receive knowledge and become empowered about their medical treatment," says Janet Cameron, Program Director of SMART, a grantee based in New York City. "People don’t understand this because they think treatment is just about medicine. ...But we know adherence to meds isn’t just 20 minutes at the doctor. People live with their HIV status 24/7."
Support services also play a critical role in bringing about policy change. Here at the Ms. Foundation, we've heard countless stories of women who have joined an organization's peer support group, made important changes in their own lives, and then gone on to become peer leaders, staff members, and conduct community outreach and policy advocacy to make long-term systemic changes that will improve many more women's lives. [Listen to Demetra Tennison's story, a peer advocate at the Women Rising Project in Austin, TX.]
“Supportive services for women are not negotiable – emotional and practical support are necessary for HIV-positive women to stay in care,” says Liz Brosnan, Executive Director of grantee Christie’s Place in San Diego, CA, and Vice-Chair for the National Women and AIDS Collective, a national policy coalition first incubated at the Ms. Foundation. “In addition to barriers to health care overall, women living with HIV face high levels of stigma, violence, and have multiple family responsibilities that they prioritize over their own health.”
Our grantees also point out that President Obama’s National HIV/AIDS Strategy, released in July 2010, emphasizes the importance of improving access to care and health outcomes for people living with HIV. But, this goal, they say, cannot be accomplished for women without psychosocial support services.
“Achieving President Obama’s ambitious goals will require sustained investment in community-based, gender-responsive programs,” says Carey-Grant of WORLD. And this, we believe, means not just maintaining, but exceeding current funding levels for programs intended to meet women's needs. That said, today we must do all we can to protect women-specific HIV/AIDS services from disappearing altogether -- in Washington State and every other.
Please start by acting now to help reinstate funding in Washington State so that, as BABES implores, "newly diagnosed women can meet with a skilled peer counselor for support, education and referrals and that BABES can continue to reduce the stigma associated with HIV/AIDS." And if you live anywhere else in the country, be sure to read the fine print to understand just who will suffer if HIV/AIDS and other social services are cut -- and then advocate in response for women's health and well-being.
By Ellen Liu
Ms. Foundation for Women
Learn more about the Ms. Foundation's Women and HIV/AIDS grantmaking.
Photo: Elizabeth Rappaport - Women Alive, 2008, group support session