By Ingrid Hawkinson
March 10th is National Women and Girls HIV/AIDS Awareness Day, a nationwide initiative to highlight the increasing impact of HIV on women and girls. How appropriate to locate this day so near International Women’s Day on March 8th, the day we celebrate and honor the political and social achievements of women.
And if we look at the statistics, we need to allow our past achievements to inspire and bolster us because though we’ve made strides in the past, the number of AIDS cases in women in the U.S. is increasing. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), from 2000 through 2004 the estimated number of AIDS cases in the United States increased 10% among women (and 7% among men).
In the US and across the globe, the rate of HIV and AIDS in women and girls has much to do with women’s sexual and economic power. In the US, minority women, that is the women who have the least economic and social empowerment, are the most affected by the AIDS epidemic. HIV disproportionately affects single women without dependents, African-American women, and Hispanic women. Hispanic and black women represent less than 25% of all U.S. women, yet they account for nearly 80% of AIDS cases in women. In fact, in what should be a shocking statistic, AIDS is now the leading cause of death for black women ages 25 to 34.
Several studies have shown HIV-infected women to die faster than men. This may be because women are less likely than men to be diagnosed early. But why? To this day and despite women’s efforts to press for equal rights (the very efforts that inspired the first International Women’s Day in 1911), women all over the world get paid less than men and are more likely to live in poverty. So limited access to health care due to poverty probably means that many women don’t learn they are infected with HIV until they develop serious AIDS-related infections. Moreover, poverty forces women to focus more on immediate needs – feeding themselves and their dependents (if they have them), making sure they have housing, etc. – than on the more distant risk of AIDS. Women also have a number of other burdens that increase their vulnerability to serious health problems, such as overwork, poor nutrition, numerous pregnancies, chronic untreated infections, and stress, among others. Each of these burdens is a contributing risk factor for women infected with HIV.
The lives of women who are infected with HIV depend not only on access to medicines and other health care, but on daily emotional support, encouragement, and help with everyday tasks that doctors can’t provide. This is precisely where communities can step in and do their part. If women and men, girls and boys get involved right in their own neighborhoods, fight to make their voices heard, and take charge of their health, together we can go a long way towards fighting HIV and AIDS. Because this pandemic has such a devastating effect on women, on this International Women’s Day let’s all reflect on what we can do to improve women’s health from the ground up.