Reports from the Front: Young Women Responding to HIV/AIDS

On a Wednesday morning in November, Dr. Diaz, director of the Mount Sinai Adolescent Health Center, addressed more than 100 health care providers, advocates, funders, and young people at a forum at Brooklyn Borough Hall confronting the alarming rise of HIV/AIDS among young women of color in New York City. Hosted by The New York Women’s Foundation, in collaboration with Funders Concerned about AIDS, the forum, “Young Women Responding to HIV/AIDS: Activism in New York City,” outlined the context in which the rates of HIV infection among young women of color are increasing and urged the audience to recognize that young women must participate in devising the solutions for themselves, their peers, and their communities.

Dr. Diaz, who is also professor of pediatrics at Mount Sinai School of Medicine, framed the issue within the nature of adolescence itself. Every young person struggles with issues of identity, sexuality and life changes against a strong current of developmental norms, a challenge in the most nurturing of environments, let alone one distorted by the interplay of poverty, race and gender. Recent data brings the picture into focus: of women with HIV/AIDS in New York City, almost 90% are black or Latina (NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, 2005); noting that 81% of women living in poverty in the City are black or Latina (Women of Color Policy Network, 2003). Dr. Diaz delineated how history and public policies have interacted to create unequal outcomes and systemic disadvantages for people of color.

With an estimated one-half of all new HIV infections occurring among people under the age of 25, Dr. Diaz characterized the failure of the healthcare system to prevent this surge as “a human rights violation.” For young people to take better care of themselves and make informed decisions about their sexual lives, she asserted, then they need information and services that are culturally, developmentally, and linguistically appropriate. We can ensure by engaging young people to educate healthcare providers, their families, and others who support them about their needs, and to form a partnership among these groups genuinely committed to reversing this trend.

Sunita Mehta, executive director of Funders Concerned about AIDS, moderated the subsequent panel discussion that brought together the perspectives of a policy advocate, a HIV/AIDS educator, a reproductive justice funder and a perinatally infected young woman who is also a HIV/AIDS peer educator. Common themes iterated by the panel include that the link is clear between HIV, poverty and rate of incarceration; the suggestion that only more funding overall can nullify perceived competition among risk groups; the importance of peer leadership development among young women; and the need for reproductive health services to include HIV education more assiduously.

Mehta reiterated the salience of a social justice perspective at a time when the prevailing thought is that AIDS is “over.” But perhaps the chord struck most consistently throughout the forum was the urgent need for each of us to educate ourselves and those around us until, as panelist Mia Herndon put it, “the preventable is prevented.”

Speakers:

Angela Diaz
Director of Mount Sinai Adolescent Health Center
Professor of Pediatrics, Mount Sinai School of Medicine

Roquelina Fonseca
Family, Adolescent and Children�s Experience at SUNY (FACES) Program

Tracie Gardner
Director of New York State Policy & Coordinator, Women’s Initiative to Stop HIV/AIDS (WISH-New York), Legal Action Center

Mia Herndon
Director of Programs, Third Wave Foundation

Claire Simon
Deputy Director for Programs, Love Heals, the Alison Gertz Foundation for AIDS Education/ Young Women of Color HIV/AIDS Coalition

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