Peace at Home and in the World for Women and Girls Living with HIV

By Waheedah Shabazz-El, PWN-USA Board Member and woman openly living with HIV

537259_10151434004186660_136443089_nOne cannot deny the devastating impact of physical bruising, scarring, mutilation or death of women and girls due to violence because these unsightly images represent some of the more obvious consequences to brutality and violence.

I could end this article here and many of you would agree that brutality against women and girls is bad and unacceptable.  The 16 Days of activism against gender violence – a global mobilization and solidarity campaign demonstrates our resolution to create tools and increase advocacy towards governments to implement promises made to eliminate all forms of violence against women.  Our goal is to establish real peace in the “Home and in the World.”

However, all violence against women and girls is not as obvious as the shiner under her lovely eyes or the hand prints embedded in the tender flesh of her throat.  Some other forms of violence against women are much more understated and subtle.

When it comes to sexual rights, birthing and reproductive health rights for women and girls, many of us encounter systems that seem to customize barriers to claiming and embracing our birthrights as human creatures with souls, values and aspirations.  However, women’s bodies are gregariously used as political footballs to win or lose campaigns.

And if you happen to be a woman living with HIV, the ugly face of discrimination undoubtedly takes violation of sexual, birthing and reproductive health rights to an entirely different level of inequality.  For years the HIV community has been calling for government led anti-stigma campaigns.  In the US, there has been an upsurge in suppression of rights of people living with HIV to enjoy full and satisfying sexual lives by creating state by state laws that criminalizes HIV sexuality and non-disclosure…. without the presence of HIV transmission.

For women and girls living with HIV these laws are enhanced if you are found to be pregnant and they tend to work against you in child custody battles.  In some criminal cases, women living with HIV have been made to sign a clause that orders them “not to become pregnant as a part of their parole stipulation.”

So during our 16 day campaign to eliminate all violence against women and girls – in order to establish “peace in the home and in the world” can we strategize ways to establish peace in the courts as well? Because HIV is not a crime, it’s a medical condition.

And how about peace in healthcare settings, where women living with HIV of all ages are realizing that their reproductive health is not integrated with their primary health care? As if women with HIV have no need for healthy options for conception, birth coaches, breast feeding options or counseling for pregnancy loss, whether the loss is through miscarriage or abortion. Peace in health care settings where HIV-positive women are provided comprehensive information and access to PreP, which can reduce the risk of HIV transmission to their sexual partners.

We cannot deny that HIV travels the well-worn path of gender inequality. Calling for the elimination of ALL violence against women and girls must be inclusive of the rights of all women in all our diversities, genders and sexual expressions. Establishing a clear link between local and international work to end violence against women means denouncing even the subtle acts of violence. This includes methods that invisibilize us like categorizing transgender women as men who have sex with men, not taking into account the intersection of violence, trauma and HIV acquisition and criminalizing romance for women living with HIV. We must approach violence against women and people living with HIV as multi-level and multi-faceted. This is the only way we can stop it.

As a woman living with HIV I stand in solidarity with other women around the world to raise awareness about gender-based violence as a human rights imperative at the local, national, regional and international levels.

From Peace in the Home to Peace in the World to Peace in the Courts to Peace in our Medical Settings, Let’s Challenge all forms of inequality and continue to create tools to pressure all our respective governments to implement promises made to eliminate all acts violence against All Women and Girls.

One way to begin in the US is by pressuring our government to go forward with ratifying the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). It was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on Dec 18, 1979. The U.S. is one of seven countries (along with Iran, Somalia, Sudan, Nauru, Palau, and Tonga) that has not signed CEDAW. Why do we, in 2013, not support it???!

The Real Cost of Shame

National Women and Girls HIV/AIDS Awareness Day 2013: The Real Cost of Shame 

Boston, MA — Yesterday, March 10th marked National Women and Girls HIV/AIDS Awareness Day and March 8th marked International Women’s Day. We at the Positive Women’s Network USA (PWN-USA) are filled with the simultaneous promise of hope and sadness at lost opportunities.

Across the country, PWN members and allies hosted, led, and spoke at a plethora of events from Cleveland, Ohio and New Orleans, LA to San Diego, CA and Washington, D.C. The events engaged youth, screened videos on the stigma and discrimination of HIV Criminalization, and increased excitement for HIV prevention research that focuses on women to name a few. In New York, HIV advocates from the U.S., including PWN-USA, and around the world are gathering for the UN Commission on the Status of Women to ensure that the Commission upholds the rights of all women, especially women living with HIV.

However, we are saddened at some recent glaring setbacks. Earlier last week, a billboard campaign entitled “The Real Cost of Teen Pregnancy” surfaced throughout New York City. Timed to coincide with International Women’s Day, Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s campaign apparently has taken the approach that shaming teen parents is a useful public health strategy. The campaign features photographs of sad young toddlers of color predicting in their own words dismal academic futures and failed relationships.

The recent announcement of a child in Mississippi functionally cured of HIV may herald a new era of medical treatments in addressing the issue of parent-to-child transmission, in the U.S. and abroad. However, we are disappointed and dismayed that there has been scant media attention to the situation of her mother — the ostensible lack of accessible prenatal care, analysis of Mississippi’s current state of HIV care and treatment, and social and structural factors that may have contributed to her not being retained in care. Furthermore, some dialogue within the HIV community has insinuated that the mother was somehow at fault or to be blame for being out of HIV care for several months after giving birth to her child.

Here in these United States of America we are proud to claim some of the world’s best physicians and providers. We serve as home to some of the wealthiest pharmaceutical companies on the planet, whose shareholders profit from the virus ravaging our bodies and communities. We know that effective treatment complemented by robust systems of care can break the back of the HIV epidemic.

Yet stigma related to HIV and sexuality, criminalization of people and communities impacted by HIV, and internalized shame by people living with HIV and women of color perpetuated by such public health campaigns and the media continue to disenfranchise many of the people who most need life-saving care and treatment.

On the heels of the sequester, the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) estimates that as many as 7,400 HIV-positive Americans will face either treatment interruption or possible cessation of treatment due to limited funding. The impact on HIV testing and counseling will be equally devastating, with DHHS predicting that 424,000 fewer HIV tests will be offered due to the cutbacks.

There are some beacons of hope on the horizon. The White House Working Group on Violence Against Women and Girls, HIV, and Gender-related Health Disparities is blazing a trail of hope in addressing some of the most critical issues driving poor health outcomes among HIV -positive women in the U.S. – the cumulative effects of trauma and abuse. We hope the Working Group will take a leadership role in integrating trauma recovery with HIV services, understanding that data shows many women living with HIV are severely impacted by depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and abuse.

There’s no more important time to be smart, strategic, and intersectional with our investments than the current moment. By investing in tools, programs, and practices that work for women living with HIV, that address the root causes of HIV – namely poverty, racism, and gender inequality – we can improve the health of women and communities, increase our involvement and contribution in society, and uphold our human rights.


Behind the Miracle Cure a Broken System Lurks

Behind the Miracle Cure a Broken System Lurks

A baby girl from Mississippi was recently cured of HIV.  But why did the system fail this child and her mother in the first place?  Jim Merrell from the HIV Prevention Justice Alliance begins a timely conversation about the fragmented healthcare system that put the woman and her child at unnecessary risk for poor health outcomes.