09 April 2008

HIV/AIDS: Placing Women—and Women's Solutions—Front and Center

*At the end of 2007, women accounted for 50% of all adults living with HIV worldwide, and for 61% in sub-Saharan Africa.

*The number of women in the United States living with HIV has tripled in the last two decades.

*Today, HIV infection is the leading cause of death for African-American women aged 25-34 years.

These statistics [PDF] are just the tip of the iceberg—the face of HIV/AIDS has changed irrevocably throughout the world and it's beyond time that prevention, education, and health care policy caught up. Women are being disproportionately affected and, as such, they are on the cutting edge of creating solutions to end the epidemic—solutions that should be front and center, both abroad and here at home.

Finally, some legislators are starting to catch the drift. This week, 175 members of Parliament in the UK signed a motion highlighting the critical importance of focusing on women as the global health community confronts HIV and AIDS. The motion calls on the Department for International Development to place women at the center of its HIV/AIDS strategies in the Global South. It also highlights "how violence, discrimination and inequality place women in sub-Saharan Africa at an increased risk of HIV"—a case study in how socioeconomic factors are intricately linked with the spread of HIV/AIDS.

This latest act in the UK—inspired by the "Women Matter" Campaign of VSO—suggests that some policymakers (however belatedly) are waking up to the fact that women are increasingly disproportionately—and uniquely—impacted by HIV/AIDS worldwide. As a result, they’ve decided any successful strategy to confront the epidemic should consider women key.

Such an approach to ending the epidemic everywhere is critical to ending the epidemic anywhere—including the United States. Indeed, this is what the National Women and AIDS Collective—the first national policy coalition led by and for women living with and affected by HIV/AIDS, and housed at the Ms. Foundation for Women—has been saying for over a year.

NWAC is in the throes of a national policy campaign which calls upon the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to revise its HIV surveillance system to more accurately capture data about how and why women are getting HIV—in effect, to update a decades-old methodology predicated on outdated understandings of the epidemic and to save thousands of women’s lives. In their own words:

“An outdated HIV surveillance data-collection system yields policies, programs and funding levels that are tragically inadequate to address the true magnitude of the HIV/AIDS epidemic among American women.
As such, the current design of the CDC’s HIV/AIDS surveillance system has profound implications for women at risk of, or living with, HIV/AIDS in the United States.”

“For years, it has been widely understood among health practitioners and advocates nationwide that women—particularly women of color and low-income women—are at high risk of HIV infection," says Vanessa Johnson, a member of NWAC and Deputy Director of NAPWA. "But as long as the data doesn’t reflect this reality, women will continue to be denied life-saving prevention and testing services now reserved for other high-risk populations such as men who have sex with men and injection drug users.”

Last October, NWAC held a Congressional briefing on this subject, sponsored by Senator Hillary Clinton’s office, where they presented their position paper and policy recommendations to over sixty government officials and national advocacy groups.

As NWAC so powerfully demonstrates, women living with and affected by HIV/AIDS are the ones to whom policymakers should be turning for solutions. The Ms. Foundation, one of the first to put funding dollars in the hands of HIV-positive women, has long believed that women living with and affected by HIV working in prevention, intervention and care at community-based levels are best positioned to identify policy solutions that will meet women's needs and curb the epidemic—nationwide and worldwide.

That said, we’re pleased to see that the UK is calling on policymakers to place women front and center in the fight against HIV/AIDS. Let’s hope this means they'll commit to placing strategies belonging to HIV-positive and affected women front and center. And let’s not just hope, but demand, that legislators in the U.S. catch on—and up—very soon.

Desiree Flores
Program Officer for Health