February 29, 2012
Quick Facts About
In TheBody.com's HIV/AIDS Organization Spotlight series, we focus on some of the true unsung heroes of the HIV community: the organizations that support and provide services for individuals living with, or at risk for, HIV. We profile some of the best in the U.S. and learn how they got started, what challenges they face and what's in store for them in the future.
This week, we turn our sights on San Antonio, Texas, and Mujeres Unidas. According to the Texas Department of State Health Services (PDF), 4,316 people were living with HIV in Bexar County at the end of 2010, and an average of 270 new diagnoses were reported per year between 2006 and 2010. And with Latinos making up 26.5 percent of people living with HIV in Texas, the advocacy and support services that Mujeres Unidas provides for the community are more important than ever.
TheBody.com recently interviewed Tina Sigler, the executive director of Mujeres Unidas.
Can you tell me a little bit about how the organization got started?
The organization got started back in 1994. They were a group of women and men that got together. Because at that time there was a need here in San Antonio to have information available for people with families that were finding out that they were either infected or affected by HIV/AIDS, yet there was a lot of need for information to be translated, information to be available to folks in communities that traditionally would not have access to it. There was great need for support, so it was families trying to understand, "What is this? And what's going to happen to our family member? And what can we do to help?"
So these women and these families got together and started these support groups. Eventually, over time, with the assistance of some other agencies as well, they applied for the 501(c)3 status, and acquired that, and have continued pretty much as a grassroots operation.
There was some time when we had Ryan White funding, and another large federal grant, but now we are operating strictly on private donations. And there are several reasons for that -- and we can get into that later -- but we continue to operate more as a grassroots operation.
Those challenges that you faced in the beginning, do you still see those today?
Yes. We still meet them today. Because even though here it is, years later, you should hear the stories that our clients tell us. Folks that are here helping out -- volunteers and the peer educators and health educators -- they hear the stories themselves, and they go, "Wait a minute. That's what we heard 10, 15, 20 years ago. Is that still happening?"
And, unfortunately, it is. We still have a big lack of education out there, not only with the community, but even with our medical -- the doctors and nurses -- the media, politicians. We still have a big gap, I think, of information now.
Why do you think that is?
Well, the experiences that we have had -- I can name several examples. I was on an airplane with a gentleman, a professional, and we were talking about what we each do. And then when I tell him what I do, and he goes, "Well, we don't have to worry about that, right? We've got medicine for that."
I said, "No. We do." So the general public that's not in touch with this community all the time thinks, well, it's taken care of. There is a pill for it. So there's no problem there. They don't understand the challenges of the medication, of the funding, etc.
And then we talk to other community members, professionals, and we start talking about the prevention education, and they're, like, "What are you doing working there? Aren't you afraid of working? Aren't you afraid you're going to get it?"
I say, "No. You don't get it by touching. You don't get it by hugging." So, just a general lack of information there.
We've got people in doctors' offices -- front offices, back offices -- where we've had clients that appear for an appointment, and they're told, "Oh, the doctors won't see patients like you."
And one particular member here said, "What? He doesn't see short women? Hispanic women? Fat women? What does he not see?" And of course, she knew what she was alluding to. And she says, "Oh, you mean he doesn't see HIV-positive clients?"
Then we've had nurses in hospitals, where a patient is in there waiting to get tested, other particular tests, and they have to draw blood. And the nurse will tell him, "I'm not drawing your blood because you're HIV positive."
And so we still continue to run into those types of situations. And what we hope to do here is not only the educational part of it, but empower the people to be able to stand up for their rights, to know their rights, and to be able to stand up and say, "Well, you know what? Then get me another nurse. Because I need to have my blood drawn, because I need to have these tests done." Or, if they're not willing to do that, to call for a supervisor, to go above them and take care of the business that needs to be taken care of.
And then, politically, of course, it's very easy to help out [for] women's breast cancer, or diabetes, and the American Heart Association. But when you mention an HIV service organization, there's still a bit of hesitancy there on many people's parts.
Do you think any of these difficulties are specific to your location, being in the South, or Texas in particular?
At times I thought that it would be because we are kind of a traditional state, but at the same time, Texans are known as rebels, so no, not necessarily because of that. And I know that religion plays a big part in that as well. I've had an opportunity through my church to deal with that. But yet, at the same time, I do find a lot of support and people willing to help out in that place, too.
So, culturally, we still have a lot of stigma associated with that. But I think if you really dig deep underneath that, it's kind of like that old saying, the squeaky wheel gets the grease. And perhaps we don't have the very, very strong advocates that a San Francisco or a Chicago would have. And perhaps we don't have the numbers that those areas would have, in comparison.
I think we're getting there, as far as adequacy, though. In this last year, I've seen a change in a lot of folks, becoming a little bit more empowered, a little bit more willing to stick their necks out.
But here's the other thing: In Texas, and here in San Antonio, we also have a lot of issues with immigration. Therefore, people are not willing to speak up. We had a women's conference here in June that the Ms. Foundation helped sponsor. And we invited women from across the state of Texas. And I wanted to get representation from all the cities and the major areas. And it didn't really hit us until we were preparing for the folks coming in that there were some people coming in from other cities that, at the last minute, were afraid to come in because of their immigration status.
And so that's probably one of the big differences that we have here versus other areas.
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