Women & HIV

As the 2016 International AIDS Conference was underway in Durban last month, I was reminded of Florence Buluba, a Ugandan woman I met at the 2012 biennial gathering in Washington, D.C. Buluba ran the National Community of Women Living with HIV/AIDS in Uganda. Not two years later, I found myself in in Buluba’s office, situated atop one of Kampala’s seven hills. Her organization serves HIV-positive women who lack access to basic reproductive health care, antiretroviral therapy, and STI prevention.

Buluba spoke passionately about how HIV is dragged into the marriage bed. Husbands bring AIDS home. When the husband wants sex, a wife cannot say no; there is no such thing as rape in marriage. When the husband dies, the woman is cast out of his family. She has no property rights, so any land belonging to her husband is taken away — as, often, are her children.

Three women in Buluba’s office divulged eerily similar stories. One was brutally beaten by her husband’s family after he died of the disease he gave her. Another’s son was taken away after her diagnosis. The children of the third woman disowned her. All faced daily hatred and stigma because of their status. The organization’s compound was locked away behind a 15-foot wall wreathed in concertina wire.

And in fact, there’s a similar story unfolding in the United States, where black women in particular are facing a worrisome uptick in HIV diagnoses.

Around the world, women account for over half of all people infected with HIV/AIDS, and they often suffer gender-specific forms of stigma and shame. But despite this reality, the majority of HIV/AIDS research and prevention funding has men primarily in mind. A generation ago, when most HIV cases occurred among men who had sex with men (MSM), this focus made sense. But, given the reality of today’s HIV epidemic, why hasn’t the target changed?

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