Women and HIV: How to Live Freely
March is Women’s History month. It's a time to celebrate the many contributions that women make and have made to our society. March is also the month that we pause to recognize HIV and its impact on women across the country. March 10th is National Women and Girls HIV/AIDS Awareness day. While HIV in the U.S. mostly impacts men, cis-gender women still make up 25% of new diagnoses and 20% of Transgender women are HIV-positive.
I was watching the show “Underground” a few nights ago. It’s about slaves setting up the Underground Railroad and working to free other slaves. They used the song “Freedom” by Beyoncé in the beginning of the episode and it set the tone for the remainder of the hour. As I was watching these portrayals of amazing and strong women working to gain their freedom and help others along the way, it got me thinking: While we live in a free country, in many ways women and girls aren’t completely free. I’m not talking about freedom in a literal sense but freedom to exist in the world. Women aren’t free to exist in the world in the same way that men are, and the way that sexual health and HIV impacts women is an example of that.
Women aren’t free to talk about sex the way that men do. If a woman enjoys sex too much or has a lot of partners, she is slut shamed. But it is expected and often celebrated for men. Women aren’t free to carry condoms without judgment or repercussions. In some instances, police have attempted to discourage sex work by taking condoms from women, or arresting them for having what they deem too many condoms. Keep in mind that men engage in sex work also, but they are not treated in the same way. And this does not stop prostitution from occurring; but it does increase HIV risk. Most sex workers are still going to have sex because they need the money to survive, and they feel they have no other alternative. Only now, they are without protection.
Many women living with HIV are not free. They don’t have the luxury to just worry about and take care of themselves. While women make up a smaller percentage of new diagnoses, they are less likely to be engaged in care than men. Many women, particularly women of color, are raising children or are the primary caregiver for a loved one. That often adds extra responsibility and can create barriers to care.
Women aren’t free to share their HIV status without the fear of extreme violence. Disclosing being HIV-positive can be challenging for anyone, but women often fear and are confronted with retaliation via physical abuse. Remember Cecily Bolden, the HIV-positive woman who was stabbed to death by her boyfriend after she revealed that she was HIV-positive. She disclosed her status and he waited a week to have sex with her one last time before killing her. Regardless of your feelings about when or how someone should disclose, nobody should lose their life for it.
We live in a society where women aren’t free to wear whatever they want and not be violated in some way. Then they are often blamed for their own harassment and assault. We live in a society where in domestic violence situations somehow somebody always manages to place a portion of the blame on the woman. It’s her fault for getting in the relationship, it’s her fault for staying, she should have known better. It’s almost never that simple. When you have low self-esteem and the man you are with is providing stability, says he loves you and has claimed to have changed, you believe him, or you want to anyway.
We live in a society where it is estimated that over 50% of Black transgender women are HIV-positive. This community is barely free to do anything without facing repercussions, including going to the bathroom. Transgender women face overwhelming levels of abandonment, misunderstanding, harassment, discrimination, and violence. With all of those struggles comes increased risk for HIV and death. This year seven Black transgender women have already been murdered and nobody seems to care. This community doesn’t even have the freedom for their deaths to be acknowledged properly. With everything that transgender women are facing, how can we expect HIV to be a top priority?
With all the challenges women face, the question becomes how do we effect change in these situations? In order for change to happen society must first start acknowledging the inequalities and work to treat women as equals. We need more people to stand up for women and step in when they are being mistreated. Instead of slut shaming, educate women and girls about sex and the risks of having multiple sex partners. Give them the tools to make informed decisions about sex. Encourage condom use and discourage feeling shame about having them. Pour into the lives of women in vulnerable populations. Mentor them and let them know their lives matter. Help them gain access to education and employment so they can avoid the risk that comes with sex work. Create open and safe environments for women to share their HIV-positive status. Help remove the barriers that women face in getting into and staying in care. Make an effort to get to know the transgender community. Stop seeing them through the lens of body parts, but as human beings with feelings, hopes and dreams.
One of the themes of National Women and Girls HIV Awareness Day is “The Best Defense is a Good Offense.” A good offense means being proactive. Be proactive in impacting the lives of women and girls around you. Promote good habits. Women are encouraged to have conversations about sexual health, take steps to protect themselves, get tested, and get into treatment if needed. I want women and girls to know that they are valued and supported by society. Creating an environment that affirms women and lets them exist freely without double standards can help promote self-esteem, and empowerment.
To all of the women across the country: know that you are strong, valued and not forgotten in the fight to end HIV. As Beyoncé says, “ Freedom, freedom, where are you? ‘Cause I need freedom, too. I break chains all by myself. Won’t let my freedom rot in Hell. Hey, I’ma keep running ‘cause a winner don’t quit on themselves.”
Find your best offense, be free and empower yourself to protect yourself.