Black Women Confront HIV Stigma, Health and Funding Disparities at USCA

By Rod McCullom, Special to the NNPA from the Black AIDS Institute –

This year the U. S. Conference on AIDS (USCA), the largest HIV/AIDS gathering in the nation, targeted its offerings toward men who have sex with men. But during the meeting sponsored by the National Minority AIDS Council, many Black women–from prevention and policy experts to those living with HIV/AIDS–aggressively pursued programming and issues that focused on their demographic.

“It’s time to mobilize around the lack of funding and resources targeting women living with HIV in the United States,” said Amanda Lugg, director of advocacy and mobilization of the New York City-based African Services Committee.

The USCA did “a very good job with multiple targets. There was a segment targeting women and I am ecstatic that next year’s conference will focus on women,” said Texas Woman’s University assistant professor Kimberly A. Parker, Ph.D., M.P.H., C.H.E.S. “But we need to do more.”

Infection rates among Black women are nearly 15 times higher than those among White women. But while in 2009 Black women accounted for about “30 percent of the estimated new HIV infections among all Blacks,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), “we don’t receive 30 percent of the funding,” said Lugg. “There is a huge divide between the face of the epidemic and funding for HIV prevention and research. It’s very important to monitor how CDC utilizes resources and how the National HIV/AIDS Strategy will affect women.”

HIV Rates Rising Among Black Women in Rural States

“There are huge disparities in rural states such as Iowa,” said Taz Clayburn, community-outreach coordinator at the AIDS Project of Central Iowa. “African Americans are only 2.8 percent of the population but 56 percent of our state’s HIV and AIDS cases.”

“We’re seeing a huge increase in infections among African-American women in Des Moines,” Clayburn added. “It’s important to link African-American women to care and persuade them to motivate themselves as a priority. As Black women, we don’t take care of ourselves–we take care of everybody else first.”

Blacks account for 50 percent of HIV infections in rural counties, according the Rural Center for AIDS/STD Prevention, whose research suggests that the rural epidemic may be shifting toward African-American women.

To complicate matters: “Since Iowa is considered a ‘low incidence’ state, we’ve lost 55 percent of our prevention funding starting January 1,” Clayburn added.

It’s a similar story in the southwest, where Blacks are few in number but disproportionately impacted by HIV/AIDS. Blacks are only four percent of Arizona’s population but are three times as likely to become infected, reported the East Valley Tribune which adds: “The HIV rate for Black women in Arizona is nearly nine times higher than that for white women.”

“The Black community is very small here, but we’re targeting resources to Black women and Black men who have sex with men,” said Kathy Donner, HIV prevention manager at the Arizona Department of Health Services.

“Everyone Has a Story”

“First the epidemic was first thought of as only affecting white gay men,” added Clayburn. “Then gay men, now African-American gay men. When will women become a priority?”

Dr. Parker led a workshop entitled “What’s Next and What’s Needed with HIV Research with Women?” “Nine out of ten Black women are contracting HIV through heterosexual contact,” Dr. Parker said. “So to understand Black women and the epidemic, we also must address their partners. And for Black women, socially and historically it’s going to be Black men.”

“We’re not comfortable discussing sex and sexuality in the Black community,” said Dr. Parker. “In order to de-stigmatize HIV/AIDS, we have to de-stigmatize sex and learn to discuss it in a healthy manner.”

A reception and screening of the “Everyone Has Story” video training series developed by Atlanta-based SisterLove, which has been lauded for its community-based risk-reduction strategy, addressed this stigma. The videos “empower Black women who are HIV-positive to share their stories and manage their condition,” said SisterLove founder and president Dázon Dixon Diallo. The event was hosted by Diallo and Emmy-nominated actress Vanessa Williams.

“For the past 22 years, Sister Love has created interventions that celebrate women’s sexuality while teaching us to be safe,” explained Diallo. “It is hard for many women to say, ‘I am a sexual human being.’ Now they can say, ‘As long as I have all the tools to keep myself safe, I can be, do and have whatever I want!’”

Atlanta resident Phyllis Malone was featured in one of the videos, which were produced by Merck. “It’s amazing and empowering to see myself on the screen,” she said to applause.

“I was diagnosed in 1996. I went to jail and was in prison,” Malone said. “When I was released, SisterLove gave me transitional housing and later helped me find a house! I stopped taking my meds for about two years. But I returned to SisterLove. I don’t want to forget my story. My past made me who I am today.”