I am not HIV positive. But, I easily could be.
I am a woman who was at one time a teenage girl in a toxic and abusive relationship. I was hopelessly in love with someone who was violent and cruel. I felt helpless, lost and isolated. During that relationship, I struggled to regain my voice and my independence. It never crossed my mind that I could be at risk for HIV.
Why would HIV have entered my mind? So often perceived as something that only happens to "other people," virus is a stigmatized condition that even today is still sadly thought to be deserved by those who have it. But in reality, Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) is simply that — a virus. Spread through four bodily fluids — blood, semen, vaginal fluids and breast milk -- it is most often transmitted through sexual contact or the sharing of syringes with an HIV+ person (side note: syringes include used tattoo instruments and steroid needles).
What I didn't realize at my young age, was that being in an abusive relationship made me more susceptible to sexually transmitted infections — including HIV. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office on Women’s Health, women in abusive relationships are more likely to get HIV due to a number of factors.
Abusive men are more likely to have multiple sexual partners, women in these relationships are more likely to be forced to have sex and less likely to be able to require their partner to wear a condom. Women who have experienced sexual abuse at a young age are also more susceptible due to unresolved trauma of these experiences that results in higher risk sexual decision-making that often lasts into adulthood.
HIV/AIDS affects millions of women and girls in the United States, and many more across the world. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, almost one-quarter of the teens and adults diagnosed with HIV in the United States each year are women — yet many women and girls are unaware of their risk of contracting HIV. According to the Alabama Department of Public Health, nearly 5,000 women had been diagnosed with HIV/AIDS in Alabama as of the end of 2012. Last year alone, 129 women and girls in the state learned that they are living with the disease. African-American women made up the majority of these cases, being diagnosed at a rate that is 10 times that of their White counterparts. The vast majority of women became infected through heterosexual contact (i.e., sex with a man).
The fight to end HIV/AIDS will require that women step up to educate our communities, and embrace those who are living with the disease. The end of HIV/AIDS among women will require an end to abuse, intimidation and silence. It will require equitable access to reproductive health care for all women, comprehensive sexual health education and an end to stigma and discrimination against those who are affected. The end of the disease begins with a conversation that maybe someone has been too afraid to have before now.
It begins when you find your voice. It begins with you.
By Dafina Ward, JD
(This post can also be found at Al.com)