June 3, 2011

Sisters Helping Sisters to Thrive: Report-Back from the Women’s Collective Training

Recently, Liz Nafziger and Ri Turner, two of Bread’s Medical Clinic Coordinators, attended a day-long training run by Abby Charles, former Advocacy and Policy Coordinator of the Women’s Collective, DC’s premier organization for women affected by and at-risk for HIV/AIDS infection.

Once we had successfully navigated the twisty corridors of Northeast DC’s Greater Mount Calvary Church, the first thing we noticed upon walking into the training room was the amazing collection of attendees. Primarily black women, the attendees ranged from Women’s Collective outreach workers (HIV-positive women who do peer outreach to promote HIV testing and prevention, including the use of the female condom) to managers of a residential shelter for women, from OB/Gyn nurses to community organizers who run a monthly meeting for African immigrant women in Maryland. We felt incredibly fortunate to share the day with such a dynamic group of women.

During the first half of the training, we learned about the problem – the impact of HIV/AIDS on women (especially in DC, where the overall HIV infection rate is over 3.2%, one of the highest rates in the country). Although HIV is sometimes thought of as a disease that primarily affects men, we learned that women are also affected by HIV at an increasing rate. Additionally, some factors make women especially vulnerable to the impact of HIV. For example, women are more likely than men to be economically dependent on others, which makes it more difficult for them to insist on safer sex practices, and also makes them more vulnerable to intimate partner violence and rape.

Once we had begun to grasp the impact of HIV/AIDS on women, we learned about the unique needs of women affected by HIV/AIDS. For example, more often than men, women bear the burden of dependents, such as children or aging or disabled relatives. Financial or material benefits (such as monthly supplemental food) are generally issued on an individual basis, designed to alleviate the economic impact of HIV on a single woman. However, those benefits often end up spread thinly among that woman’s dependents, leaving little or nothing for her own support. Similarly, women who are already overwhelmed with taking care of the needs of family members have a greater tendency to neglect their own health – they may prefer not to know about their own health status rather than add another problem to an already overwhelming plate of responsibilities. As a result, women may end up being “late testers,” which means they are not diagnosed until less than a year before their disease progresses to full-blown AIDS.

Finally, we learned about the Women’s Collective’s model for serving the needs of women and girls affected by HIV and AIDS. What makes the Women’s Collective a truly unique organization is the fact that it is run by and for a peer network of women affected by HIV/AIDS (and mostly black women, which is especially important in the District, where 90% of women newly diagnosed with HIV between 2001 and 2006 were black women, even though only 58% of women in DC are black). Additionally, the Women’s Collective emphasizes the importance of addressing the impact of HIV/AIDS by integrating four different programmatic thrusts:

•Treatment – Healthcare services tailored toward women with HIV/AIDS

•Prevention – Outreach, education, and referral services

•Advocacy – Coordinated efforts to change the institutional structures that perpetuate the prevalence of HIV infection and create barriers to access to treatment and resources

•Administration – The resources necessary to maintain a stable and sustainable organization to oversee the other three program areas

We enjoyed learning about the Women’s Collective model and reflecting on its similarities and differences from our model here at Bread for the City. Stay tuned for an upcoming post which will give more detail, specifically about the amazing advocacy work that the Women’s Collective is doing in the District, and how that work relates to our advocacy efforts here at Bread for the City.

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