5 Things You May Not Know About HIV (and Women)…

Kamaria Laffrey

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past six months or so, you’ve heard about Charlie Sheen revealing that he is HIV positive. During this time, I have taken the liberty to peek in some threads in various social media sites with memes of Sheen and Dr. Oz. A lot of people are outraged for the women that he’s slept with. Some are concerned, some thinks he deserves it and even though the conversation is being had. I find it all problematic. I might be biased since I am a woman living with HIV.

I find it problematic because no one, unless you’ve been in his shoes, can possibly understand the pressure or pain Charlie Sheen had to go through to get to this point. Whether his lifestyle warranted an HIV diagnosis is for no one to have room in concluding, but instead should be willing to learn from his situation, support him seeking consistent and legitimate treatment and not be a part of the problem.

We can dissect the gender disparity, and I am certain the outcome of how Sheen is being treated in contrast to had it been a woman, would be completely different. We’ll just put “Because society has a warped sense of shaming women for having sex vs. men” as our intro unspoken reason and delve into five things you may not know about HIV and women that keep them from getting tested, disclosing their status once diagnosed and from remaining in care. With National Women & Girls HIV/AIDS Awareness Day coming on March 10th, you might want to be aware of some of the greater issues on the table of a women at risk and living with HIV.

First, there’s the fact that access to Prevention & Treatment Needs Improvement: As of March 2015, approximately 1 in 4 people living with HIV are women and of those only 88% have been diagnosed with only 32% of them in consistent care. This can be for a variety of reasons. From my personal experience, it is so exhausting having to explain what HIV is, what my meds are and why I might want to have a child to every single intake nurse I have…and then repeat it again to my physician. That alone makes it tiresome to stay in care, when those we are trusting our lives to are unaware of our health concerns. This is why I strongly advocate for peer counseling for newly diagnosed individuals and those that have lapsed on their treatment.

Secondly, Women living with HIV are being prosecuted based on stigma, not science: A woman living with HIV in Georgia received an eight year sentence for failing to disclose her HIV status, despite having two witnesses that verified that her sexual partner was aware of her HIV status. This actually applies to men and women throughout the nation, with many of the cases being brought up and carried out by disgruntled lovers, misinformed law enforcement, and old laws that use stigmatizing language not based on actual HIV transmission, just the slight possibility of it. There are agencies and councils throughout the United States that work tirelessly to repeal these laws, but it is taking educating the community, developing affecting relationships w/ elected officials and truly highlighting how damaging this is to HIV as a public health issue. People are not wanting to get tested for fear that they have to disclose their status

and if they do, they fear they might be retaliated against. If the laws weren’t in place as they are now, this fear would be unfounded and resources could be focused elsewhere.

Third, Women living with HIV are afraid to disclose for fear of being killed, abused or shunned: One in three women experience intimate partner violence (domestic abuse), however of those living with HIV, the numbers are one out of two. A woman in Texas was stabbed to death with her killer leaving her body for her young children to find, because he believed that she had given him HIV. He was married and having an affair with the woman who revealed her status to him. decided to sleep with her once more, waited until she went to sleep and killed her. His logic and defense is that “She killed me, so I killed her.” He received 40 years for her murder and has yet to test positive. The caveat (my opinion) to this is that the woman was likely on treatment and knew that her viral load was suppressed because of her treatment and felt safe to disclose believing there was no harm or risk. He killed her out of fear and ignorance, leaving children without their mother.

Then there’s Women not living with HIV have a prevention tool in addition to condoms that can lower the transmission rate of HIV from their partner: PrEP is the PRE­exposure Prophylaxis that can be taken before exposure to HIV, just as birth control pills are taken to prevent pregnancy. This treatment works by blocking HIV from making copies of itself. Used by a person who is HIV negative that is in a sexual relationship with a person living with HIV, it would be taken daily and ideally used in addition to condoms. This is a great milestone in the HIV timeline and one that will lead to many more scientific breakthroughs. Researchers, advocates and physicians globally are raising funding for implementation of more studies, conferences are calling for more data and dialogue and communities worldwide are waiting eagerly for possibilities.

Lastly, Women living with HIV is inclusive of Trans (Transgender) ­women: Because not all trans people share the same trans goals or issues, providing resources has not been a priority and the population is overlooked because there’s little data to support their needs. Resources helping transwomen disclose not only their HIV status but that they are trans is one that is dangerous. My Facebook timeline alone has had at least five posts this month dedicated to different trans women that either took their own lives or lost theirs at the hands of someone who couldn’t see past societal norms to help them. Equal and fair treatment by their physicians, the community, and the various social agencies they need to survive is just a start, but it is a much needed start that needs to be on the forefront in a stronger way besides a politicized issue to judge and whisper about.

Knowing these are issues women are dealing with whether living with HIV or not, it is overly obvious that something needs to be done. These are only the tip of the iceberg. Being a woman alone is difficult as it is in our society, throw in getting tested, disclosure, using condoms in prevention and just simply trying to maintain your dignity through it all, is a lot to balance. But we are not weak. We are not to be silenced.

There are advocates across the nation and around the world working fiercely in creating dialogue tools for providers, so that if women are in an abusive relationship, they have learned how to navigate through specific networks to get their life saving treatments. At this very moment, task forces are being implemented to deal with the punitive laws that were written decades ago on HIV and developing relationships with elected officials to repeal them. A team of five women rallied with one another and created an educational video, sharing their personal experiences with intimate partner violence to help others know they can get out, they can live. Just this past month a group of trans­women demanded space at the table, laying out recommendations for guidelines to help them be more included in the wide spectrum of their lives ­at the White House. We are bold, we are strong, we are confident… that nothing can be decided for us, without us…but again, this is just the tip of the iceberg.

Please visit these websites for more information into the issues listed above, feel empowered to have these conversations among your peers, the upcoming National Women & Girls HIV/AIDS Awareness Day is a perfect time to do so.

Positive Women’s Network USA (for women living with HIV) ­ www.pwn­usa.org The Well Project (for women living with HIV) ­ www.thewellproject.org
The Red Pump Project ­ www.theredpumpproject.org
SERO ­ www.sero.com
The Center for HIV Law & Policy ­ www.hivlawandpolicy.org
National Women & Girls HIV/AIDS Awareness Day ­ www.womenshealth.gov/nwghaad/ Avert ­ www.avert.org
Poz Magazine ­ www.poz.com
Greater Than ­ www.greaterthan.org
Keiser Family Foundation ­ www.kff.org
Centers for Disease Control ­ www.cdc.gov/hiv
AIDS.gov ­ www.aids.gov (for more awareness days, fact sheets and community resources) _______________________________________
[1] HIV Among Women. http://www.cdc.gov/hiv/pdf/risk_women.pdf Centers for Disease Control (CDC) March 2015.
[2] Ending and Defending Against HIV Criminalization: State and Federal Laws and Prosecutions, Vol. 1 http://www.hivlawandpolicy.org/resources/ending­and­defending­against­hiv­criminalization­stat e­and­federal­laws­and­prosecutions The Center for HIV Law and Policy, May 2015.
[3] Empowered: Women, HIV and Intimate Partner Violence http://www.greaterthan.org/campaigns/empowered/empowered­women­hiv­intimate­partner­viol ence­about/ Greater Than, October 2015.
[4] PrEP for Women. http://www.thewellproject.org/hiv-information/prep-women The Well Project, August 2015.

[5] T ­Sista: Resource Guide for Adapting SISTA for Transwomen. www.transhealth.ucsf.edu Regents of the University of California, 2010.

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