Women and Girls HIV/AIDS Awareness Day — let's empower women globally
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HIV is often characterized as a disease that overwhelmingly affects gay and bisexual men, subsequently obscuring the significant and unique risks experienced by women. In truth, 27 percent of all new HIV cases are attributed to women, making HIV/AIDS the leading cause of death worldwide for women aged 15-44.

Women are subjected to various institutional barriers that escalate the risk of infection and prevent access to treatment.

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On National Women and Girls HIV/AIDS Awareness Day, it is imperative that we recognize the threat of HIV facing women of all ages, encourage steps towards ending the epidemic among women, and empower women to affect the global response to HIV.

 

Around the world, women encounter institutional barriers that increase the risks and impact of HIV. The failure by public institutions to promote comprehensive sex education, both in the United States and abroad, has limited awareness of the dangers of HIV infection for women.

Women also comprise two-thirds of the world’s 800 million illiterate adults, a product of social hierarchies that limit educational opportunities for girls and women. As a result, women are frequently unable to access desperately needed information about sexual health, STI testing, and available treatments.

Women are also exposed to the risks of HIV through sexual assault. In the United States, one in five women is sexually assaulted at some point in their lives. Our society’s failure to properly address sexual assault has endangered women while allowing perpetrators to routinely walk free.

Women face greater risk of HIV infection not only through the incidence of sexual assault, but also as a result of the life-long trauma and symptoms that can result from sexual assault. For that reason, GMHC’s Safety in Housing program offers housing to individuals suffering from unstable housing as a result of intimate partner violence.

Women with HIV have also struggled to attain proper healthcare. As of 2012, only 55 percent of women living with HIV received continuous treatment, only 39 percent of women had been prescribed antiretroviral therapy, and only 30 percent had achieved viral suppression.

Since the early days of the HIV epidemic, the HIV-positive community has struggled to receive affordable access to care and treatment. For HIV-positive women, access to treatment is further complicated by gender inequities in employment and pay.

Moreover, 62 percent of all women diagnosed with HIV in 2014 were African American and 16 percent were Hispanic, signaling the prevalence of HIV among women of color susceptible to additional barriers to care.

Programs such as those offered through GMHC’s Women’s Care, Prevention, and Support Division, and our Empowerment program for transgender women, play a vital role in expanding access to testing and treatment for women who are most at risk.

Our response to the HIV epidemic must empower women, and provide them with the ability to protect their health. In order to create and implement policies to mitigate the HIV crisis among women, we must address the roots of the epidemic - institutionalized sexism, economic disparities, and violence against women.

There are existing programs designed to combat the HIV epidemic among women by striking at those roots. GMHC’s Women Empowering Women harm reduction program aims to protect HIV-positive and at-risk HIV-negative women of color.

Our Together We Can program utilizes outreach to and interventions for at-risk women to curb the rate and impact of infections. And our Peer Navigation program provides a support system specializing in case management and care navigation.

HIV-prevention and treatment programs, coupled with encouraging shifts in public policy, helped to reduce new transmissions among women by 40 percent between 2005 and 2014. It is critical that we continue to build on this progress, and ensure that women are not left behind in the war on AIDS.

Kelsey Louie, MSW, MBA is the Chief Executive Officer at Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC) where he oversees all operational, programmatic, and strategic aspects of the organization. He has over 13 years of professional experience in the fields of HIV/AIDS prevention and care, behavioral health, addiction services, homelessness, LGBTQ issues, and family and children services.


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