Ending a Culture of Violence against Women and Girls Living with HIV: Support Human Dignity

By Waheedah Shabazz-El, 30 for 30 Campaign-Steering Committee Member

Ever peel an onion? Each layer seems to lead to yet another. Getting to the actual core is rather tricky. Have you ever noticed that it seems like the more you peel and the closer you get the core, the more your eyes burn and tear up?  

For me and many more women like me, women who are living with HIV, this onion theory may sound all too familiar. Getting to the core of my own vulnerabilities to acquiring HIV is similar to peeling an onion. And for me, the more layers I peel away lead to yet another layer to peel away. For a very long time I shed tears, eyes burning, trying to get at the core of: “How did I get here and so many other women like me who have acquired and continue to acquire HIV?”  

To be clear, I am not referring the risks of contracting HIV, which I know to be sharing syringes and/or having unprotected sex with others who are HIV positive.  Nor am I referring to the modes of HIV transmission: blood, semen, vaginal fluid & breast milk.  

I am peeling the onion trying to get to the core (eyes burning and tears flowing) of the systemic factors (over which I may have had little to no control over) that may have increased my vulnerability or susceptibility to acquiring HIV in the first place. I peel away a  layer of poverty, only to find a layer of sub-standard education, followed by a layer of homelessness, a layer of inadequate health care, a layer of untreated mental health, layers of the impact of having met my father at the age of five through a set of prison bars, and layers of generational substance abuse. Instability were some of my earliest memories and experiences, so I always felt afraid and ashamed, as if other families and people were better off than me and didn’t have parents who were strung out and/or incarcerated.  Consequently, I went through life making decisions based on my lack of self-worth, accepting dysfunction as natural, and acquiring HIV in my search for love from external sources.

At the very center, the core of the onion is a collection of smaller onion layers, which in my case shielded layers of violent traumatic rapes, molestation and the heartaches of feeling violated, devalued and unprotected. Layers shielding the awful memories of the parents who fought every day and divorced because of me! Shielding the terrifying feelings of isolation, marginalization, shame, guilt and layers of low self-esteem for having gotten pregnant at fourteen. Nearing the core, exposing the impact of low-quality education, low-paying jobs, untreated depression, intergenerational poverty, homelessness, more rapes and drug dependency.  Finally, at the core I am paralyzed; stricken and shrouded by layers of trauma and violent situations that have strained the very fabric of my human dignity!  

In peeling away the layers of my life, like peeling an onion, I have reached the core of the systemic factors (over which I certainly had little to no control) which strained the very fabric of my human dignity.  Experiencing the traumas of rape, hunger, teenage pregnancy, homelessness and memories of violent deaths of loved ones left me with feelings of being on the lower rung of human society – that even the animals at the zoo had a better, safer life than me.  I remember always being in survival mode, struggling to get past existence. In search of an intercessor that never occurred or materialized. Human dignity literally destroyed, I was driven by pain, instinct and actions that compromised my safety and health–which more than likely raised my vulnerability to acquiring HIV in the first place.

Thirty years into the HIV and AIDS epidemic, we are unequivocally coming to realize that HIV is a symptom of layers and layers and layers of the infringement of human rights and at the core of that is a strain on our human dignity.

The 30 for 30 Campaign distinctly recognizes the association between HIV acquisition in women and girls who have faced cycles of trauma and violence, which is clear and supported by scientific studies.

The 30 for 30 Campaign stands with Women living with HIV and supports their vision of  life free from violence, coercion, and discrimination.  

The 30 for 30 Campaign  stands with PWN-USA as they demand an End to a Culture of Violence and an end to the many different forms of violence faced by all women, including physical, emotional, psychological, religious, sexual, institutional, and economic violence, and the trauma that violence leaves in its wake.  Calling for Trauma-Informed Care–service integration which includes standardizing routine intimate partner violence screenings in all health and wellness settings.  

For more information about the 30 for 30 Campaign, visit www.30for30campaign.org.

This blog is reposted with permission from the 30 for 30 Campaign website.

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