By Ariel Jastromb
This Wednesday, March 10th, is National Women and Girls HIV/AIDS Awareness Day. The day is an important one because the face of HIV has evolved to include more women of all ethnicities, shapes and sizes. When HIV/AIDS was first discovered, it was thought that the disease afflicted only gay males. Today, women account for more than one quarter of all new HIV/AIDS diagnoses. More specifically, AIDS is the leading cause of death for Black women between the ages of 25-34 and the 5th leading cause of death for all women aged 35-44.
Of all the ways one can catch HIV, high-risk heterosexual contact was the source of 80% of newly diagnosed infections. This statistic points to a different challenge that women face. Their safety lies in the hands of their male partners. For example, some women may not insist on condom use because of the fear that they may be left by their partner or even physically abused
Such sexual inequality is a major issue and can be seen often in couples where the male is significantly older than the woman. In a Center for Disease Control study of urban high schools, more than one-third of women of color had their first sexual encounter with a partner that exceeded them in age. This unique struggle pertaining to relationship dynamics can render women helpless when it comes to protecting themselves from HIV infection.
Some women remain unaware of their risk because they assume their partner has always been loyal, has never used IV drugs and has only engaged in heterosexual sex. Men who have sex with other men might then transmit the disease to their female partners. Limited knowledge of HIV, a lower perception of risk, drug or alcohol use, and different interpretations of safer sex may also contribute.
Another example of sexual inequality can be seen in the case of non-injection drug abuse. To support their habit, women are more likely to sell or trade their bodies for sex. Substance abusing women are also more vulnerable to engage in high-risk sex while they are high or intoxicated.
In addition to sexual inequality in relationships, women are slightly less likely than men to receive prescriptions for the most effective HIV treatments. Financial inequality also plays a role in new HIV infections. Participants in the CDC study reported that they were more likely to engage in high-risk behavior due to financial dependence on a male.
So what’s a girl to do? The risks to females seem insurmountable. Knowledge is power and no matter how the cards are dealt, a woman has the right to protect herself from HIV. The CDC is also working to formulate a vaginal cream or gel to be applied before intercourse for protection for HIV.
To help in Massachusetts, CAB Health & Recovery Services, Inc., receives funding from the CDC for HIV risk-reduction counseling and prevention case management, as does WOMEN RISE (Risk Identification, Strategies, and Empowerment), an HIV prevention services program that engages women and their partners who are at very high risk for HIV infection, who are homeless and living in family shelters, or who are identified through street outreach.