Washington Area Women's Foundation

Inclusion Can Help DC in the HIV/AIDS Fight

Last week The Washington Post carried a devastating headline: “HIV infection rate skyrockets among some D.C. women.” The women the headline referred to were heterosexual, low-income African American women. The HIV infection rate for them nearly doubled in two years, going from 6.3 percent to 12.1 percent, according to a new study released by the DC Department of Health.

The Washington Blade covered the same story but had a completely different angle. Their headline read “Report: D.C. HIV rates continue to drop.” The difference in coverage highlights the fact that while progress is being made in the fight against HIV in DC, black women living in poverty are being left behind.

When the DOH study was made public, Mayor Vincent Gray announced that headway was being made because “we are getting people diagnosed with HIV infection earlier and directly into care with our treatment-on-demand policy.” But these tactics clearly aren’t working for everybody. When so much of the population can’t be part of your success story, it’s time to question just how successful you’re being. It’s time to change the way we’re addressing and talking about the problem.

A report released by Washington Area Women’s Foundation in 2010 explored how advocacy can improve services for women with HIV/AIDS. “The AIDS epidemic has a unique impact on women, exacerbated by their role in society and their biological vulnerability to HIV infection,” the report said. “Women and girls living with and at risk for HIV/AIDS… continue to experience barriers to care including: fragmentation in the HIV medical care delivery system, cultural barriers, organizational procedures insensitive to the needs of women and girls, and lack of information about services. Race, poverty, language, sexual orientation, and class intensify these barriers.”

By taking the unique needs of low-income African American women into account when tackling the HIV/AIDS epidemic in DC, city officials and policy makers can have real, lasting impact for all residents no matter their race, gender, sexual orientation or income. The Women’s Foundation encourages DOH and the mayor to include low-income black women in all future conversations about the most effective ways to reverse the rising HIV infection rate in DC and beyond.

On June 27th, National HIV Testing Day, The Women’s Collective (a Grantee Partner of Washington Area Women’s Foundation) held a community conversation with a representative from the DC HIV/AIDS Hepatitis, STD & TB Administration to discuss the report in further detail with nonprofits and women in the community. The event was a chance to ask questions, discuss possible solutions and meet allies. Parked right outside was a van that serves as The Women’s Collective’s mobile testing unit, where women were signing up to get HIV tests. Events and opportunities like these can and should be part of DC’s success story.