HIV Positive Women in Oakland Demand, “Count Us In”

HIV Positive Women in Oakland Demand, “Count Us In”

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OAKLAND, Calif. -- On the morning of December 1st, World AIDS Day, approximately 60 Oakland community members gathered on the steps of City Hall to demand that women be made a priority in HIV treatment and prevention. The assembly and press conference marked the launch of “Count Us In,” a national campaign dedicated to ensuring that HIV positive women have full access to high quality healthcare.

Sonia Rastogi, a coordinator from Positive Women’s Network (PWN), a project of WORLD (Women Organized to Respond to Life-Threatening Diseases) which is organizing the campaign, spoke of the urgency of the HIV crisis in the United States. “The reality is that the epidemic in the U.S. is a human rights crisis comparable to and even worse than some of the other countries in the world.”

According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC) there are 300,000 women who live with HIV in the U.S., and a staggering 80 percent of those are women of color. Within California alone, 12,000 women are HIV positive and the City of Oakland currently has the fourth highest rate of AIDS cases in the state.

In 2010, President Obama unveiled the National HIV/AIDS Strategy, which marked the first time the U.S. government formally acknowledged that something needed to be done domestically to curb the AIDS epidemic.

But according to Rastogi, women were not made a priority in the plan. And because funding streams, federal agencies, and health care reform are lining up with the national strategy, “when its goals do not specifically mention women centered services as a priority, then funding shifts away,” said Rastogi.

The “Count Us In” campaign intends to increase visibility of women living with the disease and ensure that those women are counted in the data, the services, the planning, the budget, and the leadership around HIV/AIDS treatment and prevention.

“Women living with HIV are consistently not at decision-making tables from a local to a national level,” declared Rastogi.

For the first time in 23 years, the International AIDS Conference is being held in Washington D.C. this coming July as a result of President Obama reversing the HIV travel ban, which had previously barred the U.S. from playing host to the conference, which attracts a global audience.

One of PWN’s goals as a local host of the conference is for positive women to be recognized as leaders and for topics on HIV-positive women’s issues to be discussed.

Given the current budget crisis, another major issue being discussed is the cutting back of healthcare services, which activists say is putting HIV positive women at particular risk. Tiffany Woods, a program coordinator for TransVision at Tri-City Health Center, declared that community clinics have become the new battleground for services, and that their resources have been stretched thin.

Furthermore, said Rastogi, HIV positive women in cities like Oakland are being disproportionately impacted by cuts to other critical services like transportation assistance, housing assistance, and legal aid.

“There’s no way that you can focus on your medical care when you’re worried about where you’re going to sleep or where you’re going to eat. Positive women, especially in Alameda county or Contra Costa county, live at the intersection of so many inequalities,” declared Rastogi.

The specter of shame often associated with the disease within communities of color is another issue that broached during the assembly.

Star Britt, whose mother Sylvia Britt is HIV positive, commented: “The huge sense of shame, that’s a disease in itself.”

Sylvia Britt, a Wellness Navigator at the East Bay AIDS Center, was diagnosed with AIDS in 2003. She described how the transformation of the public perception of AIDS from a gay white male disease to one that disproportionately affects people of color, and women, has changed the funding stream. “Since the color of HIV has changed, all of a sudden there’s no money and no services,” she said.

If more attention is to be paid to the way HIV is impacting communities of color Britt declared, “We need to protest and fight for more services.”

Oakland Mayor Jean Quan was also in attendance and declared the city’s support for the campaign. She announced that free HIV testing will be made available at the next Oakland Art Murmur, a monthly downtown arts festival, on Friday December 2. The Mayor said she would be there herself, and encouraged people to get tested.