Globally, women are the fastest growing population of people infected with AIDS. And women and girls of color in the United States and around the world have been hit the hardest.
"Every time I walk into an AIDS room in South Africa where someone's daughter, sister, or mother is dying of AIDS, I think, ‘Someone should have talked to them,' " said Charlayne Hunter-Gault, the award-winning journalist and moderator of a panel discussion on Friday titled The New Face of AIDS: Our Mothers, Our Sisters, Our Daughters.
Panelists included the president and chief executive officer of one of the largest international poverty fighting organizations, the vice president of Africana Consultants, the president of the International Center for Research on Women and the founder and president of the first and largest women's AIDS organization in the Southeast United States. Besides their commitment to the global and national AIDS epidemic, each panelist had one thing in common. They were all women.
"People have asked why an all-women panel," Ms. Hunter-Gault told the Gazette last week before the discussion, hosted by the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research. "Sometimes it's important to speak from the women's perspective, even though there is a big role for men to play."
Despite its overwhelming toll on women, the panelists said that today, AIDS is still thought of as a male disease. "At first, the greatest impact was on men," said Dr. Helene Gayle, president and CEO of CARE, a poverty fighting organization. "But, the reality is that any sexually transmitted disease will have a greater impact on women than on men." Dr. Gayle told the audience at the Whaling Church in Edgartown that women now make up 80 per cent of all new HIV infections in the United States. "The shift has happened," she declared.
The statistics are compelling. Twelve per cent of the United States population is black, but black women make up more than 60 per cent of American women infected with HIV. The risk for infection among black women is 23 times higher than the risk for white women. "When we talk about the risk factors for women, it's difficult," Dr. Gayle said. "Often, the only risk factor is the one conveyed by her partner."
The panelists described a global epidemic in which a woman's risk of contracting HIV is exacerbated by her cultural, economic and political standing. Dr. Geeta Rao Gupta of the International Center for Research on Women cited the low socioeconomic and social status of women and the inequality of access to education, employment, income and credit as contributing to the risk women face today when protecting their health. "As a result of all this, women have no leverage in negotiating protection with their sexual partners," Dr. Gupta said. "They have no say in when sex happens and how."
In the fight against AIDS, more is needed than vaccines to prevent and drugs to treat the disease, panelists said. The consensus was unanimous: Education is the most powerful tool to combat AIDS and HIV. Dr. Arese Carrington of Africana Consultants explained how her home country, Nigeria, used education to lower its AIDS rate. In 1986, Nigeria recorded its first HIV case. Five years later, the country had an infection rate of 1.8 per cent. In 2001, that rate had jumped to 5.8 per cent. But, by 2005, it had dropped to 4.4 per cent. During those years, the Nigerian government launched a mass public health initiative to educate the population about the disease on a national, state and local level.
But Dr. Carrington warned that funding for the program and others like it has been restricted under the Bush administration. She said that in other countries, such as Uganda, funding restrictions have contributed to a rise in rates of infection that previously had dropped. "The programs have to meet the realities of peoples' lives," Dr. Gayle said.
In the United States, AIDS is typically thought of as a problem confined to distant countries such as Nigeria. But there are acute problems at home as well. "There are pockets of this country that are as bad as developing countries," said Dazon Diallo of SisterLove, Inc, a woman's AIDS organization. She said black women represent half of all AIDS cases in the South and that women worldwide have been ignored in the discussion. "There was one study done in the late eighties," she said. "And there has not been another gender specific study since then." She said one study is under way now.
Despite the grim reality of the global AIDS epidemic, the panelists remained sanguine. "Twenty-six years into this effort, we know a lot more about the epidemic," said Dr. Gayle. "The rates are starting to fall and we have a lot of examples of what can be done in communities to fight it."
But the fight cannot happen alone. Each panelist urged those who attended the event on Friday to do their part. Dr. Gupta asked audience members to find an organization fighting AIDS and invest in that organization. Ms. Diallo said there are four parts to improving the epidemic - prevention, treatment, care and advocacy. "We have to normalize this conversation," she said. "Catch them early, young, often and for a long time." She suggested peer mentoring programs. As the discussion ended, Dr. Carrington urged audience members to keep women in mind.
"We should not allow our women to drown in the epidemic of AIDS, but should teach them how to swim," she said.