Today is the 10th anniversary of National Women and Girls HIV/AIDS Awareness Day (#NWGHAAD). A lot of progress has been made for women and girls through the years since the beginning of the HIV era. Perinatal transmission has decreased significantly across the globe, especially in places like the United States. Advances in research and treatment have changed HIV from what was once thought of as a deadly disease to a manageable chronic illness. Research has also shown that individuals living with HIV who have an undetectable viral load have a virtually zero chance of transmitting HIV to another person.
However, despite progress, there still very much to be done. And there are still many ways in which women and girls living with or at risk for HIV lag behind males. The rate of new diagnoses in women is high. Women often progress to viral failure faster than men. Women are often diagnosed with HIV at a later stage then men. Women do not achieve viral suppression at the same rights as men.
And there's more. There is unfortunately still a huge societal stigma attached to HIV. Women with HIV are more likely to live in poverty than women without an HIV diagnosis. Three out of four women living with HIV are survivors of domestic/intimate partner violence or have experienced some form of violence in their lives – and for trans women, the rate is even higher. Women living with HIV experience high levels of mental health diagnoses, including trauma, depression, and anxiety. Women are not adequately represented in important HIV clinical trials research, including cure studies. And many women are denied their basic reproductive health rights and bodily autonomy not just by partners, but also by institutions.
We know a lot of structural inequalities that exist in society influence not only the rate that women contract HIV, but also continue to negatively affect their lives after diagnosis. In addition, as women are often the caregivers of partners, children, and or others, the potential generational impact caused by these issues WLHIV face is problematic at a broader level.
There are several ways to improve things for our positive sisters across the globe. Below are just a few:
Meaningful engagement: Women living with HIV deserve to have their voices heard. They should not only be included "at the table," but they should be provided meaningful leadership roles in areas that greatly affect their lives at ALL stages in the process. NOT at the end, not as a token or afterthought, but from the beginning and all the way throughout.
Research and Care: Women living with HIV need to be integrated in all aspects of HIV research and should be recruited, enrolled, and retained at levels similar to men. Women living with HIV deserve treatment and research that addresses unanswered questions about their unique health needs - they are more than receptors for babies and genital secretions. Women living with HIV also need quality care designed for women that is responsive and trauma informed. They also need comprehensive, multifaceted, culturally responsive, family centered care. They deserve for their their care, and their services, to be prioritized above administrative and funding issues.
Society: Women living with HIV need opportunities for economic growth to achieve self-sufficiency. Women living with HIV need a support system that includes healthy, respectful, reciprocal romantic, platonic, and/or professional relationships. Women living with HIV deserve to be viewed and addressed in a respectful manner, to live free of HIV stigma and unfair policies and/or judgment.
As a new woman contracts HIV every 9 half minutes, it is definitely important to raise awareness about HIV. But raising awareness is not enough. We need to do more - much, much more. Not just on NWGHAAD, but every day.