Women and HIV. Once upon a time, those two words were seldom found in a sentence together. In the early 1990s, the AIDS activist group ACT UP made a T-shirt that read: “Say It: Women Get AIDS” because so few people beyond the HIV community knew that women could get HIV. Over time, things have changed dramatically, and in November 2009, the World Health Organization (WHO) announced that HIV/AIDS is now the leading cause of disease and death among women of childbearing age (15 to 44) worldwide. (That’s been true in the United States since 1995 for African-American women between the ages of 25 and 44.) Yet despite these staggering statistics, much of the world still misperceives HIV as a disease that only happens to men. And this misperception—along with a variety of other social, biological, psychological, political and economic factors—contributes to the raging spread of HIV among women and girls.
Women are especially vulnerable to contracting HIV for the many reasons you will hear about on the following pages, in the stories of seven remarkable women living with HIV around the United States. The particulars of women’s heightened risk include the specifics of female biology; high rates of sexual abuse and gender-based violence; battles for self-esteem and respect; women’s need to be accepted by sexual partners; a chronic lack of resources and income; and homophobia, which can drive lesbians to unsafe and unhealthy practices. The cycle is vicious: Without access to the same opportunities and rights as men, women may end up in situations where they need to be subordinate to men in order to provide for their own survival (or that of their children). This fundamental power imbalance too often puts even the strongest and most self-directed women in positions that lead them to compromise themselves. In such cases, women sometimes take risks or engage in practices they know will endanger their health, putting themselves in harm’s way because that is what is necessary for them and their families to survive. There is bitter irony in the notion that many women contract a deadly disease while they are struggling to stay alive.
What was most interesting to us when conducting these interviews, which we edited as first-person narratives, was how a woman’s self-sacrifice—an arguably admirable quality—can make her especially vulnerable to contracting HIV, and even keep her from caring for her health once she tests positive. And what was equally compelling was the notion that, when women contract HIV and find the courage to face fighting the disease, they often fight not only for their own lives, but also for those of the people around them. Over the years, POZ has found that positive women don’t move from a place of vulnerability to one of empowerment alone—they take other women with them. As we interviewed these seven women, one refrain resounded: “Now that I know what I know, I will share it with my sisters.” As usual, when greeted with a mess, women get to work taking care of those they love—together. And their combined tales, recounted on the following pages, prove that nothing, not even HIV/AIDS, has the power to keep a good woman down when she sets her mind to survive—and to fight.