On Third Day of Action to End Violence Against Women Living with HIV, PWN-USA Demands End to Criminalization & Other Forms of Structural Violence

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OCTOBER 21: Women with HIV simultaneously live with the effects of trauma resulting from interpersonal, community, and institutional violence. Studies have shown that the lifelong and compounding effects of these different forms of violence may have consequences far deadlier than the virus itself. October 23, Positive Women’s Network – USA (PWN-USA), along with dozens of endorsing organizations, will observe our third Day of Action to End Violence Against Women Living with HIV, releasing a factsheet highlighting the many forms of violence impacting women living with HIV and their communities, with a special focus on criminalization, discriminatory law enforcement practices and other forms of

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Teresa Sullivan, PWN-USA Philadelphia Senior Member, displays city proclamation

structural violence, and to offer solutions and ways that government, institutions and organizations can help prevent and mitigate violence and trauma. We will also be hosting a Twitter chat Monday, Oct. 24, at 2 PM ET/11 AM PT to look at the promise of trauma-informed care for women living with HIV as a means to healing the trauma that is far too often a barrier to retention in care (follow the hashtags #pwnspeaks and #EndVAWHIV). Community events are also being held in various cities, and members in Philadelphia and Houston secured proclamations from their cities declaring October 23 the Day of Action to End Violence Against Women Living with HIV.

Laws criminalizing people living with HIV (PLHIV) disproportionately affect over-policed communities, including women of color (who make up 80% of the epidemic among women) and women of trans* experience. Harassment and brutality by police and law enforcement create hostile environments that perpetuate trauma in communities of color and other communities significantly impacted by HIV. Consequently, for the 2016 National Day of Action to End Violence Against Women Living with HIV, PWN-USA demands:
  • Repeal and reform of laws criminalizing HIV exposure, non-disclosure and transmission
  • An end to law enforcement practices that target communities disproportionately impacted by HIV, including people of trans and gender nonconforming experience (TGNC), sex workers, people who use drugs, immigrants, people who are unstably housed, people with mental illness, and communities of color
  • An end to stigmatizing and discriminatory interactions, methods of surveillance and brutalization of PLHIV and communities impacted by HIV at the hands of law enforcement
  • Elimination of barriers to safe, stable, and meaningful reintegration into the community for those returning home from jail and prison, those with criminal convictions, and the loved ones who support them.
PWN-USA called for the first Day of Action in 2014 in response to several high-profile murders of women following disclosure of their HIV status. Last year, community events were held in at least 18 cities, as well as a Twitter chat with 228 participants that reached 1.6 million people. 18 blog posts and statements were submitted by individuals and organizations in honor of the Day of Action. PWN-USA hopes this year’s day of action will continue to raise awareness, put forward solutions and mobilize advocates to push for meaningful change to end structural and institutional violence in the form of criminalization of our communities.
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Positively Trans Meets at White House, Advocates for Inclusion and Leadership of Trans* Community in HIV Policy

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Tiommi (right) and Arianna Lint (left) at White House, Feb. 10, 2016

by Tiommi Jenae Luckett

Going to the White House was truly something I never had on my radar to do for personal reasons. However, that was years ago when I felt that way. So fast forward and I was invited to participate in a roundtable discussion with members of the Office of National AIDS Policy (ONAP), the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA), Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and representatives from other agencies, alongside several phenomenal trans women and trans men who are recognized as experts.

The discussion started off with a synopsis of the things these lead organizations need to improve on when servicing the trans population. We who are of trans experience are already privy to this information and we voiced our frustrations about the inconclusive and nonexistent data of the trans community living with HIV.

We had to let these agencies know that the trans community is not being counted because trans women are seen as men who have sex with men (MSM) and trans men are counted as women. That is problematic, because these ASOs and CBOs that claim to provide services for transgender people seldom do. We also had to let them know that the trans women in attendance were more than beautiful women; we are also hardworking, dedicated, fierce, intelligent and persistent advocates who demand a place at the table. In essence, nothing about us without us. We made it blatantly clear that funds intended to bridge the gap in disparities suffered by the trans community living with HIV are not being used in that manner, but more for the leadership building of Black MSMs.

I know that we got our points across and were heard. As I told Douglas Brooks, Director of ONAP, that I thought my meeting with members of HRSA last year in Arkansas was a step in rectifying the situation, yet as a trans woman living with HIV in Arkansas, whatever surveillance measures are being used are not counting me. That is a huge problem for me. What we members of Positively Trans who were in attendance actually did was to share the preliminary results of our survey of trans* and gender-non-conforming people living with HIV in the South, since the southern region is often neglected from funding opportunities.

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Separating Science from Stigma Following the Charlie Sheen Disclosure

Charlie Sheen’s public disclosure of his HIV status, while producing some of the predictable backlash and stigmatizing comments we have come to expect, has also presented a fantastic opportunity to educate the general public about the current science concerning HIV, including treatments, treatment as prevention and the reality of transmission risks, as well as HIV criminalization.

Let’s face it–when it comes to HIV, an awful lot of people are stuck in the ’80s and ’90s. Just take a look at the tabloids or the comments sections on mainstream media articles about HIV. Many people still consider an HIV diagnosis a death sentence (and use HIV/AIDS interchangeably); they grossly exaggerate the actual risks of transmission; they have little to no understanding of the efficacy of current medications; they do not realize that adherence to medication makes transmission next to impossible–even without condoms.

And that’s dangerous. It perpetuates stigma around HIV, which, aside from being damaging to people living with HIV, discourages many from being tested or seeking treatment. That same stigma and lack of education around current science leads to the prosecution of people living with HIV even in cases where no transmission occurred or was even possible, and can even fuel violence (look what happened to Cicely Bolden when she disclosed to her partner–he claimed to have killed her because a) having already had condomless sex with her, he must have acquired HIV; and b) assuming he had acquired HIV, it meant he was going to die soon).

However you feel about Charlie Sheen as an actor or a person, the public attention his disclosure has drawn is the perfect opportunity to educate the public. That’s a win-win for people living with HIV and for those at risk of acquiring HIV. Share the video above, the infographic below and the articles linked below–provided by TheBody.com–on social media and by email with your friends, family, coworkers, community and anyone else who might need some education.

How Can I Prevent HIV Transmission?

Five Ways to Stay Strong: How Charlie Sheen’s Disclosure Affects People Living With HIV
In the wake of Sheen’s disclosure, hyperbolic headlines can trigger old, familiar feelings of fear and shame. From Dr. David Fawcett, a mental health therapist who has been living with HIV since 1988, here’s vital advice on how people with HIV can stay strong when stigma flares.

Fact-Checking Charlie Sheen’s HIV Disclosure Interview
Warren Tong, Senior Science Editor at TheBody.com, goes point-by-point to bring scientific accuracy to Matt Lauer’s interview of Charlie Sheen and his physician on the Today Show.

Charlie Sheen Deserves Your Scorn, but Not Because He Has HIV
“Please keep this in mind: The jokes you make about Charlie Sheen won’t hurt him. He’s a super wealthy celebrity in a culture that worships those. But most people living with HIV don’t have those advantages, and the stigmatizing jokes and misinformation can and do hurt them.”

LISTICLE: 12 Ways to Give HIV Stigma a Well-Deserved Side Eye
An engaging set of GIFs of iconic female celebrities accompanies an insightful list of arguments to counter HIV stigma in daily life.

VIDEO: Aaron Laxton: Overcoming Depression and Drug Use, Living Boldly with HIV
After a traumatic childhood, Aaron Laxton had to overcome a military discharge, depression and drug use to come to terms with his HIV diagnosis. Now a popular video blogger and spokesperson, he lives a healthy and vibrant life with his HIV-negative partner Philip and works with homeless veterans facing similar challenges. In this immersive video, Aaron and Philip share their story.

HIV Prevention Portal
The best of the Web on HIV prevention, with features, infographics, video and links to a wealth of content.

TheBody.com’s “Ask the Experts” Forums
For decades, TheBody.com has been a reliable and accessible resource for people seeking clear answers about HIV. Whether asking about the risk of a personal encounter to finding the best possible treatment to stay healthy when living with HIV or more, our experts are on the ready to answer a myriad of concerns and queries.

Personal Stories of People Affected by HIV
The real life stories of people with HIV are a source of support for others, and a counterbalance to misinformation, stigma and fear.

And here are some more good articles about HIV in the wake of the Charlie Sheen disclosure:

Why an HIV Diagnosis Is Treated Like a Crime in Most U.S. States (The Daily Dot)
A great article about HIV criminalization laws and why they are ineffective at preventing the spread of HIV while perpetuating stigma.

Charlie Sheen and Celebrity HIV Status (The Feminist Wire)
Great perspective on why Charlie Sheen’s disclosure should not distract from the very real intersectional issues facing so many people living with HIV.

People Are Terrified of Sex (The Atlantic)
Insightful article examining the particular stigma surrounding sexually transmitted infections, including HIV.

Charlie Sheen’s Diagnosis Offers Teachable Moment (USA Today)
A solid look at various angles of the disclosure and the ensuing conversation around HIV.

What It’s Like to Live with HIV/AIDS Today (video) – (CNN Headline News)
Great interview with HIV advocates.

And here are some concrete ways reporters, bloggers and anyone speaking in or through the media can avoid stigmatizing HIV.

For more articles, news and information, keep an eye on our Facebook page and Twitter!

Join the 2nd Annual Day of Action to End Violence Against Women with HIV, October 23, 2015

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Contact: Naina Khanna, nkhanna@pwn-usa.org / 510-681-1169

August 31, 2015 – For women living with HIV, trauma and violence are often deadlier than the virus. Join Positive Women’s Network – USA (PWN-USA), the premier voice of women leaders with HIV in the US, in saying ENOUGH! to the epidemic of violence against women with HIV. You’re invited to sign on as a partner or endorser for the second annual National Day of Action to End Violence Against Women Living with HIV!

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Official logo for the Day of Action.

On October 23, 2014, during Intimate Partner Violence Awareness Month, PWN-USA spearheaded the first-ever National Day of Action to End Violence Against Women Living with HIV (Day of Action) to respond to the high rates of interpersonal violence, abuse, and systemic brutality faced by women living with HIV – including several high-profile brutal murders of women because of their HIV-positive status. We joined with well over a dozen endorsing organizations to raise our voices in support of women with HIV of all gender identities and sexual expressions who face violence, and to demand solutions.

From local ruckus-raisings to educational events and a webinar featuring federal partners, 2014’s Day of Action was a tremendous success.  Since last year’s Day of Action, PWN-USA and the UCSF Women’s HIV Program jointly released a model of trauma-informed primary care useful for providers serving women living with HIV.

This October 23, the Day of Action’s impact and influence will be even broader – and you can help! Sign on early as a partner organization, bring the Day of Action to your community by organizing a virtual or in-person event, and improve culture, programs, and policy for women living with HIV.

“Last year’s events really helped to highlight policy and programmatic opportunities to address violence against women with HIV, as well as the cumulative effects of lifetime trauma,” says PWN-USA’s Executive Director, Naina Khanna. “From the White House to local Ryan White clinics and community-based organizations, we are seeing an emerging commitment to address this issue.”

Organizations that sign on as partners in the Day of Action commit to taking at least one of a number of bold actions to address violence against women with HIV on that day. As a partner, your organization name will be listed on our website, and your event or statement on the intersections of violence and HIV will be shared widely through PWN-USA’s channels. Read more about partnership and endorsement of the Day of Action

Three in every 4 women living with HIV in the US reports a history of gender-based violence, compared to 1 in 4 women in the general population. This is part of a larger context in which violence against women, especially women of color, has been normalized and accepted. The Day of Action, conceived entirely for and by women with HIV, was created to raise awareness about the effects and prevalence of violence against women living with HIV, break through the culture that keeps this issue in silence, and push for structural change, including policy changes to eliminate this disparity.

“Laws that criminalize people living with HIV and practices that perpetuate discrimination, including violations of our sexual and reproductive rights and stigmatizing portrayals of HIV in media, are part of the culture of violence against women living with HIV,” says Khanna.

On October 23, women living with HIV, as well as those who love and support them, are invited to take part in Day of Action events both online and in person, sponsored by our partner organizations as well as our nine regional chapters and independent members across the US. Stay tuned to www.pwn-usa.org between now and October to find out more about ways to get involved in your community as well as on social media.

“Everyone is invited to share thoughts, actions, or ideas using the hashtags #pwnspeaks and #EndVAWHIV on social media both during the event and leading up to it,” says Olivia Ford, PWN-USA’s Communications Director.

Sign on as a partner or endorser of the Day of Action TODAY! We can’t wait to work with you to end the culture of violence against women living with HIV.

Updating the National HIV/AIDS Strategy: Vote for the Recommendations Most Vital to Women with HIV!

Can you believe it’s been almost FIVE YEARS since the first National HIV/AIDS Strategy (NHAS) was released in July 2010?

The NHAS is a plan created under President Obama to comprehensively address the domestic HIV epidemic. The first NHAS included four main goals: 1) reducing the number of new HIV infections 2) increasing access to care for people living with HIV 3) addressing population-level disparities in prevention, care and treatment and 4) improving coordination of HIV programs and funding across federal agencies.

The first NHAS addressed some issues which are really important to women with HIV, including repealing HIV criminalization laws and expanding employment opportunities for people with HIV. But it missed the boat on others – failing to mention sexual and reproductive healthcare for people with HIV, failing to talk about the high rates of trauma and violence that impact women with HIV, and not meaningfully addressing the specific needs of transgender women.

Now, the White House Office of National AIDS Policy (ONAP) is soliciting input for the next National HIV/AIDS Strategy, which will be released this summer. This new Strategy (NHAS 2.0) will help to guide priorities for the domestic epidemic, likely for the next five years – which means it will go into the next Administration. It’s critically important that the voices of women with HIV and those who care about us are heard in this process.

The deadline to provide input ends this Friday, May 22nd. Here’s how to provide input:
1. Go to: https://nhas.uservoice.com
You can enter your email address to create a profile.
2. You will see that the opportunity to provide input is grouped into “feedback forums” according to the four goals of the National HIV/AIDS Strategy. You can click on any of the feedback forums to see which ideas have already been proposed.
3. Once you have access to a profile, you have two options:
a. Vote for a recommendation that has already been proposed
b. Propose a new recommendation
You can do both of these.
Note that you get 25 votes per feedback forum. You can vote for multiple recommendations, and you can also cast more than one vote per recommendation.

There are a lot of good recommendations already proposed in the forum. Also, a few weeks ago, PWN-USA released our own top five recommendations for the next National HIV/AIDS Strategy. In line with PWN-USA’s policy agenda and NHAS recommendations, here are just a few of the recommendations which have been proposed on ONAP’s forum that we think are really important. Click the links below to read more about each one. Starred (***) items are drawn from PWN-USA’s five top recommendations!

1. Reducing new HIV infections
a. Lift the ban on federal funding for syringe exchange
2. Increasing access to care & improving health outcomes for people living with HIV (PLHIV)
a***. Develop a minimum standard of care for PLHIV which includes sexual and reproductive healthcare, trauma-informed care, supportive services, and more.
b. Ensure gender-responsive, trauma-informed, coordinated and comprehensive care (this is very similar to the one above).

c***. Announce a national initiative focused on addressing inequity in access to care and poor health outcomes among Black women living with HIV

d***. Launch a national initiative to enhance culturally relevant prevention and care for transgender women
e. Ensure that PLHIV have access to healthy food: “Food as Medicine”
f. Increase and prioritize funding for services that link PLHIV into care
g. Preserve and support women-focused community-based HIV organizations
h. Integrate the work of the Federal Interagency Working Group on HIV and Violence against Women into the NHAS by instituting metrics on addressing trauma and violence

3. Addressing disparities and health inequities
a***. Fund research and development of women-controlled HIV prevention tools
b. Mandate comprehensive sex education in schools, and eliminate support for abstinence-only education
c. Eliminate state-level HIV criminalization laws

Are you excited yet? Ready, set, go vote before this Friday, May 22! (https://nhas.uservoice.com)

PWN-USA Teams with Healthcare Providers to Release New Model for Trauma-Informed Care

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Contact: Olivia Ford – oford@pwn-usa.org – 347.553.5174

May 6, 2015 – Today, Positive Women’s Network – USA (PWN-USA), a national membership body of women with HIV, is proud to announce the release of a new model for bringing trauma awareness and healing into primary healthcare settings. The conceptual framework, developed in partnership with University of California – San Francisco (UCSF) clinician-researchers, provides a practical guide to help providers incorporate trauma-informed care into clinical practice.

“Trauma-informed care is the missing ingredient to engage women with HIV in care successfully and to ensure good health outcomes,” says Naina Khanna, Executive Director of PWN-USA, who co-authored the paper presenting the new model. Rates of intimate partner violence and post-traumatic stress disorder are estimated to be 55% and 30%, respectively – much higher than national rates – among women with HIV.

“HIV care and treatment cannot work if women can’t get to the healthcare provider in the first place, because they have trauma-adaptive coping mechanisms getting in the way of showing up,” Khanna says, “or because unaddressed trauma and a healthcare environment that ignores trauma are making it difficult for a woman to communicate with her provider about what her real healthcare needs are.”

The model was published today in the journal Women’s Health Issues, and calls trauma-informed primary care “a practical and ethical imperative for women’s health and wellbeing.”

“Addressing trauma is our opportunity to move beyond treatment to actual healing for women with HIV,” Khanna explains. Advocates believe that failure to heal from the effects of current and past trauma explains the crater in the HIV care continuum for women: Only  70% of women with HIV link to care, and fewer than half remain connected to care.

The paper’s lead author, Edward L. Machtinger, MD, director of the Women’s HIV Program at UCSF, called understanding the link between trauma and overall health “an epiphany for clinicians.”

“Many of us have spent years struggling to help our patients be genuinely healthy and strong, but did not realize that there was a missing ingredient in our care model,” said Machtinger, a pioneer in trauma-informed care research and practice.

“Because trauma is so common, we need to critically examine how the healthcare environment affects not only patients, but also providers and staff,” said Leigh Kimberg, MD, UCSF Professor of Medicine at San Francisco Hospital and Trauma Center and the paper’s senior author, in a recent statement. “By adopting foundational trauma-informed practices and policies, healthcare providers and staff promote increased safety, reliability, trust, and empathy to create a more healing environment for everyone.”

The changing landscape of healthcare delivery, and of the HIV care system, finds the US at a critical moment of opportunity to transform these systems. While the first National HIV/AIDS Strategy failed to address the parallel epidemic of violence and trauma among women, President Obama’s creation of an Interagency Federal Working Group on the Intersection of HIV/AIDS, Violence Against Women and Girls, and Gender-Related Health Disparities was an attempt to correct this oversight.

The next National HIV/AIDS Strategy will soon be released, and must fully integrate the Federal Interagency Workgroup’s call for trauma-informed approaches to be implemented in all settings where women with HIV receive care and services. The recently published care model provides a blueprint for providers to begin to make this vital commitment to their clients.

Figure 1. A framework for trauma-informed primary care

A framework for trauma-informed primary care.
A framework for trauma-informed primary care.

Read the full text of the paper, “From Treatment to Healing: The Promise of Trauma-Informed Primary Care,” in the journal Women’s Health Issues

Read the San Francisco Chronicle article “UCSF team: trauma screening should be standard in health care” (PDF)

Bee Day 2015: Advocating for Reproductive Health in South Carolina

By Stacy Jennings, PWN-USA Member

On March 25, 2015, many lobbyists – including me – from the grassroots e-advocacy network “Tell Them,” which works to improve reproductive health policy in South Carolina, gathered for an opportunity to meet with House Representatives seeking their support for a much needed bill.

Watch my video about why participating in Bee Day was so important to me:

Support is very much needed for reproductive health policies to include Bill (H.3447). This bill would ensure that young persons be taught medically accurate and evidence-based information pertaining to sexual and reproductive health. The bill will ensure that all school districts in South Carolina comply with the existing Comprehensive Health Education Act.

Tell Them advocates have been responsible for speaking out for two other bills to pass, which include:

(S.278 + H.3204) Cervical cancer prevention:

This bill authorizes South Carolina’s Department of Health and Environmental Control to provide 7th graders in South Carolina schools with a series of vaccines and information regarding vaccinations, including the HPV vaccine to prevent cervical cancer;

(S.3) Domestic violence reform:

This bill is responsible for strengthening criminal domestic violence laws to increase penalties for perpetrators, and making state law compliant with federal law in denying legal ownership of firearms for those found guilty of domestic violence.

 

Want to know more about Bee Day?

 

Stacy Jennings lives in Columbia, South Carolina, and is a member and co-Representative to the Strategic Communications Action Team for PWN-USA-South Carolina.

Stepping Up Commitment: Women and Girls Living with HIV Must Matter Every Day of the Year

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Contact: Olivia Ford, oford.pwnusa@gmail.com / 347.553.5174 

March 10, 2015 – Each year, on March 10, National Women and Girls HIV/AIDS Awareness Day (NWGHAAD) is observed in the US. But at Positive Women’s Network – USA (PWN-USA), a national advocacy network of women living with HIV, we work on addressing the HIV epidemic among women year round. We don’t expect everyone to do that. There are many other issues and communities that require sustained focus and commitment.

However,  the federal government has consistently failed to prioritize women in the domestic HIV response:

Consequently, we are compelled to point out the myriad ways in which violence is perpetrated against women living with HIV. The intersections between HIV, violence and trauma for women are well-documented in the literature, and we applaud the White House Office of National AIDS Policy (ONAP)’s lead role in addressing this critical issue, forming a federal interagency workgroup to address it, and making this issue the centerpiece of its NWGHAAD focus this year.

However, it is important to recognize that violence comes in many forms – from institutions, policies, and practices that systematically render transgender people invisible, to power structures that consistently fail to meaningfully involve women and other communities impacted by HIV in generating recommendations, solutions, and decisions about policies and programs that impact our lives.

To effectively address the HIV epidemic among women, including the estimated 300,000 women living with HIV in the United States, the next National HIV/AIDS Strategy – which will be released this year – must include strategic priorities that address women’s needs.  These include the need for high quality, non-stigmatizing sexual and reproductive healthcare for women with HIV throughout the lifespan, implementation of trauma-informed practices in care settings, and family-centered services that facilitate and support access to care for people living with HIV.

Most important, people living with HIV must be meaningfully involved in crafting sustainable policy and programmatic solutions that reflect the realities of our lives.  On #NWGHAAD, and every day of the year: Nothing about us #WithoutUs.

I’m Feelin’ Like a Criminal: Why the Law Won’t Stop the Spread of HIV

By Loren Jones, PWN-USA Board Member

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Loren Jones.

Some of us, due to our chance assignment from birth to certain races, genders, and classes, have pretty much been outlaws all our lives. And now, here we go; another notch on the cowgirl list of broken laws (in more than 30 states): “HIV positive and living as assumed normal.”

HIV criminalization laws are driven by irrational knee-jerk fear. The kind of fears and ignorance that led us to the path of becoming “positive” to begin with. Fear of living life alone. Fear of being one more variety of strange, nasty, weird, and untouchable is even stronger than the fear of death for some of us. People face the same types of stigma and violence from these laws that they face on the streets.

Shame never helps you learn. It only makes people hide deeper and farther from sight.

When I received my diagnosis in about 1985, while single, homeless, and hanging with a group of similarly marginalized outlaws living by our own code of right, wrong, and loyal, I immediately made the decision not to tell. Mostly for the same reasons that a lot of people don’t tell others they’re living with HIV: I could not afford to lose what little I had, in terms of companions and lovers, such as they were. Besides, I was healthy, and really did not trust a society or medical profession that didn’t really like people like us anyway.

None of us were perfect then. And we are not now. But we didn’t, and still don’t, blame each other for much. After all, I was there, you were there, and we were all there in the moment. Yeah, we should have known better. There were always STIs. But life is a crap shoot anyway. And if the violence don’t get you, something else will. I have and still do risk a lot for what I call my friends. And that has included my body.

We are not evil, horrible people. Nor were we or are we insatiable, uncaring whores and killers. We don’t deserve to go to jail for living with HIV. We go to jail too much as it is.

I have grown with the science. Truly, as I knew better, I did better. Education, and making every human being feel valued and well-loved as who they are, is still the answer to stopping the spread of HIV. The law will never be.

Loren Jones is a resident of Berkeley, California, a co-founder and Board Member of PWN-USA, and a Senior Member of PWN-USA’s Bay Area Chapter.

More Articles by Loren Jones

Women, Violence and HIV

Involving local, state, and global commissions in Violence Against Women

 

More Resources

Criminalization Information

When Ignorance Kills, Nobody Wins: Advocates Reflect on an HIV-Related Murder Case

By Morénike Giwa Onaiwu and Venita Ray

Elisha Maxine Henson was a Texas mother with a big love for family, especially her two sons. A stay-at-home mom with a bright smile, Elisha enjoyed riding motorcycles and was a member of a local church. Elisha was well liked and had many friends. Previously employed in the fast food industry, Elisha was living with HIV and was very open about her HIV status. Unfortunately, as a result of her openness, she experienced stigma in the small town where she lived.
Earlier this week, 23-year-old Justin Welch pled guilty to the first-degree murder of 30-year-old Elisha, who was strangled to death on April 26, 2014. Welch was sentenced to 50 years in prison. In a May 2014 police interview, Welch admitted to the murder and expressed anger and fear that he had been exposed to HIV through sexual contact with Elisha.

The overall risk of female-to-male transmission of HIV is extremely low and the risk of HIV transmission for a male receiving oral sex from a woman living with HIV is virtually zero. However, despite the lack of risk, inaccurate information and stigma surrounding HIV are pervasive, often resulting in negative consequences, as in this case and sadly in others.

Immediately after news of Henson’s murder became public, there was a national outcry from advocates around the country, including Positive Women’s Network – USA, a national membership body of women living with HIV. In addition to issuing a statement of solidarity with the family and condemning HIV-associated stigma and violence, Texas HIV advocates engaged in a variety of advocacy efforts to support the grieving family, to encourage responsible, non-stigmatizing media coverage, and to demand justice from the legal system. In the months that have followed, advocates have followed the case with interest and have continued to raise awareness about the devastating consequences of both HIV stigma and violence perpetuated against women living with HIV, declaring a National Day of Action to End Violence Against Women with HIV to honor Elisha, Cicely Bolden, and others.  Sadly, three out of four women living with HIV experience violence; this rate, which is far greater than the rate of violence for HIV-negative women, is unacceptable.

The price of stigma and violence is too great to bear. At only 30 years of age, Elisha is dead, leaving her two young sons, mother, siblings, and friends to mourn her absence. Welch will serve a minimum of 25 years of his 50-year prison sentence. Rosalind Smith, who has been charged as an accomplice, has yet to go to trial for her role; it has been alleged that Smith helped dispose of Henson’s body.  This is an example of senseless violence and unnecessary loss for an act that had virtually zero risk of HIV transmission.

Several months after the tragic day that Elisha was killed, many lives have been negatively impacted and will continue to be affected for years to come. The consequences of HIV stigma are deadly, and only through eradicating stigma and fostering understanding of transmission risks, compassion, and acceptance of people living with HIV will we avoid further tragedies, death, and loss.

We can’t bring Elisha, Cicely, or any of the victims of HIV-related deaths back, but we can work to prevent this from happening again.  We must acknowledge the insidious ways that HIV stigma contributes to the devaluing of the lives of women with HIV – and the potential deadly consequences of stigma coupled with misinformation about HIV transmission. We challenge everyone, regardless of HIV status, to get accurate, up-to-date information about HIV, and to share that information with others. We also challenge everyone to take an active role in eliminating HIV stigma by talking back to stigma in our daily lives, including our places of work, family, friends, doctors, and even in the media. We all have a role to play in eliminating violence against people living with HIV.