Wanted: Feminist Warriors to Fight HIV/AIDS

While AIDS Is Killing Women of Color in the U.S., the Women's Movement Appears to Be M.I.A.

"How many of you believe that you are at risk for HIV?" I asked the 50 young women sitting in front of me.

Only a few hands went up.

"That's all?"

These women had crammed themselves into a small lecture room at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for the WAM! (Women, Action, and the Media) conference in 2009. They were sitting in on my session about why and how feminist journalists should cover HIV.

Later I inquired, "Who thinks AIDS is a women's issue?"

These incredibly bright feminists -- mostly white college students -- just looked at me.

I knew there was a theoretical disconnect between the feminist movement and the HIV/AIDS epidemic, but this was the first time I had been confronted by it face-to-face. And as we began dissecting their oblivion, it became painfully clear: Because AIDS wasn't ravaging them, it wasn't on their radar. One of the participants even made a comment that the Lifetime movie Girl, Positive was unrealistic because the two white characters -- played by 90210's Jennie Garth and the actress Andrea Bowen who plays Teri Hatcher's daughter on Desperate Housewives -- both had HIV.

While I didn't agree with the logic behind their complacency, they were right about one thing: Women like them are not overwhelmingly testing positive -- it's women of color like me who bear the brunt. While we only make up a combined 25 percent of the U.S. female population, we account for 82 percent of all female HIV/AIDS cases in the U.S.

But if this disease is affecting and killing women, why are we not talking about it?

Ain't we all women?

What's interesting is that from a global perspective, many experts recognize that HIV is such a feminist issue. Whether it's physical and sexual violence; being economically dependent on men; being trafficked into sex work; an inability to negotiate condom use; or lack of access to education, prevention and contraception, a woman's vulnerability to contracting HIV is directly related to the gender inequality she faces.

And strategies to change that reality -- albeit a constant work in progress, imperfect and underfunded -- have been slowly evolving to follow suit. In countries such as South Africa, Kenya and India, money is being channeled to fund programs for women addressing economic dependency; to fund educational and skill-building classes; and to develop culturally competent condom negotiation approaches.

Science is also getting on the same page. Last month, at the XVIII International AIDS Conference in Vienna, two researchers presented a study in which they found early signs that a microbicide -- in this case, a gel spiked with Viread (tenofovir) -- might be able to cut a woman's risk of contracting HIV by as much as 54 percent. This is amazing news for women who cannot negotiate condom use with their partners. More work needs to be done, but this is promising.

While progress is being made, there are still gender-related biases in the HIV community. The United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) and the ATHENA Network released a report suggesting that sexism plays a factor in who is being asked to the table, how strategies are being developed that affect women, and the astounding lack of female leadership in HIV policy making. Among the many things they suggested, they believe that in order to raise the visibility of women living with HIV, it's crucial for women's advocacy groups to work in unity with HIV groups.

So it's clear that the epidemic is screaming for a feminist intervention. Yet here in the States, you barely hear a peep.

To be fair, there are a few feminist groups that occasionally talk about HIV, as well as grant-appointing groups -- such as the New York Women's Foundation -- that fund HIV organizations. And it's not as if black and Latino feminists are waiting for permission: Organizations such as SisterLove, Inc., incorporate reproductive health and feminist approaches in their own HIV work. But as a platform issue, AIDS has not been taken on as ferociously as abortion and other reproductive health issues. And that doesn't make sense, because anytime we are talking about the consequences of unprotected sex, we need to be talking about HIV.

So why the oversight? Maybe because HIV was dubbed a "gay, white man's disease" for so long that women's orgs are just slow to recognize it's a real problem, don't know how to incorporate its message or have their own stigma around the disease. Or maybe because the AIDS world self-segregates and doesn't do the best job of letting outsiders in to offer their expertise.

Or perhaps we need to look to the obvious. There has been a history of racism and classism, especially during the second wave of feminism in the '70s. Many feminists of color -- such as Barbara Smith, Demita Frazier and Michele Wallace -- strongly argued that white, upper-class feminist leaders disregarded their concerns. Swept to the side were issues such as forced sterilizations, prison rights, economic instability and how oppressions other than gender impacted women's lives.

While it may be unpopular to talk about, these biases still exist. And the lack of visible support for HIV/AIDS exposes one of the movement's biggest weaknesses: its difficulty with successfully addressing issues that deal with the interconnections of class, race, gender and sexuality.

The first step in making change is for movement leaders to acknowledge this gap and bring their expertise to the table, because the HIV epidemic cannot be fought merely on a clinical front. The social component is crucial. And that gender piece is vital in saving the lives of all women.

If that doesn't happen, I don't know what it will take. Perhaps U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had it right when she said, during a Democratic primary debate in 2007, that if white women were dying of AIDS at the same rate as black women, "there would be an outraged outcry." Maybe then people would pay attention.

As a feminist, I hope that doesn't have to be the catalyst. But it's hard to deny the fact that our neophytes are being "taught" that if it isn't happening to them, it's not really happening.

Kellee Terrell is TheBody.com's former news editor. The views reflected in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of TheBody.com itself.