Speaking Truth to Power

Sonia Rastogi
Sonia Rastogi

The 2012 International AIDS Conference (AIDS 2012) was a memorable experience for many in the U.S. HIV community. It marked a historical moment that showed U.S. progress against HIV -- and, in truth, our ability to catch up with the HIV response in other parts of the world. President Obama lifted the HIV travel ban, allowing the conference to take place in Washington, D.C., and proposed the first ever National HIV/AIDS Strategy. U.S. Positive Women's Network (PWN) was honored to be one of two U.S. civil society partners for the conference along with the Black AIDS Institute.

For me the most moving experience of AIDS 2012 was PWN's press conference titled "From the Shadows: Women, Sex, HIV, and Violence -- How Trauma Drives the HIV Epidemic." The press conference featured Mardge Cohen, M.D., and Kathleen Weber with the Women's Interagency HIV Study (WIHS); Edward Machtinger, M.D., with the University of California-San Francisco (UCSF) Women's HIV Program; PWNers Naina Khanna, Gina Brown, and Kathleen Griffith -- all phenomenal advocates and leaders -- and Paulette Sullivan Moore with the National Network to End Domestic Violence. We discussed the real-life experiences of women living with HIV, solutions proposed and led by women living with HIV, and the recently released UCSF and WIHS research on how violence and trauma lead to poorer health outcomes, treatment failure and death for women living with HIV.

The press conference moved me because of its power to mobilize. The press conference mobilized the PWN network to identify and articulate the violence against women issue in our communities. It pushed providers, advocates and allies alike to rethink how HIV impacts women and as a result impacts those around them. It challenged local and federal decision-makers to reevaluate their strategy to address the HIV epidemic.

In March of this year, President Obama launched the first Federal Inter-Agency Working Group on HIV/AIDS, Violence Against Women and Gender-Related Health Disparities. Over the course of 2012, advocates have voiced their support of and need for this working group. Civil society has held the working group accountable to its charge and to its mission.

Lastly, the press conference brought together movements within and outside the HIV community that may not have worked together before. In an AIDS 2012 wrap-up video interview with Ron Valdiserri, M.D, M.P.H., Gina Brown, M.D., with the U.S. National Institutes of Health eloquently discussed the behavioral and biologic risks of violence and trauma, and the need to understand and explore these associations via research.

The press conference moved me because of its power to raise awareness -- and, in raising awareness, to lift a heaviness that has prevented women living with HIV, providers and policymakers alike from engaging in dialogue around this issue. Violence and trauma are silenced epidemics -- even more silenced, in its nuances and impact, than the epidemic of HIV among women. In conversations with PWNers, allies, providers and decision-makers on this issue, I came to realize the depth and complexity of stigma associated with violence and trauma (and, parenthetically, how that complexity seeped into my own consciousness and my own understanding of my life experiences).

There has been a lot of movement and enthusiasm around this issue in the past year. The 2012 formation of the Federal Inter-Agency Working Group, PACHA's resolution on women and the prioritization of this topic in other federal spaces provide hope and optimism. I am particularly heartened by the positive and solution-oriented language of the press conference that included the real, lived experiences of women living with HIV. Talking about our experiences and talking about the solutions helps to combat the stigma associated with violence in our communities.

In closing, the press conference represented a moment in our collective memory and timeline that pushes forward the agenda for dealing with the impact of violence, trauma and HIV on women. It does this by building understanding between us to create new connections and identify gaps in our knowledge, and it does this by freeing the voices of those who did not have the vocabulary or support to speak their truth.

Sonia Rastogi is the communications coordinator at the U.S. Positive Women's Network, a project of WORLD.