Silent killer of Black American women

Ray Jordan | 10/3/2013, 1:33 p.m.
“If HIV-AIDS were the leading cause of death of White women between the ages of 25 and 34, there would ...
Kimberly Edwards, a recent college graduate, chooses a headstone for her mother’s grave. Seated to her left is Raymond Carroll with Lincoln Memorial Cemetery. Edwards said that her mother died from AIDS, a secret the two kept from family and friends until her mother was too sick to hide it any longer. Photo by Robyn H. Jimenez

As a result, upon meeting Mukamtagara Jendayi, who at the time was a graduate student studying Women’s Studies at Texas Women’s University, they both founded The Afiya Center for HIV Prevention and Sexual Reproductive Justice, or simply known today as The Afiya Center.

Afiya, the feminine Swahili word for health and wellness, seemed appropriate for Jones and the center’s work, which looks at the health issues of women, and particularly women of color, through a social justice and human rights framework.

“Challenges for Black women have been as simple or as complex as being relevant in the conversation. The average Black woman has almost never been encouraged to prioritize herself, so not being prioritized in the battle against HIV was almost normal,” Jones said. Therefore, she affirms that the work of The Afiya Center is “unapologetically” centered on the health and wellness of Black women and girls.

These challenges have not been simply theoretical but a lived experience for Michelle Anderson, an HIV activist and African American woman living with HIV. Anderson, who found out she was HIV positive while at a treatment facility for drug abuse, assumed her HIV infection was the result of a lifestyle of addiction. This assumption remained until she later discovered a former long-term boyfriend was also HIV positive, meaning she was likely infected prior to the hardships of her drug addiction.

The dating habits of Black women, Anderson points out, contribute to the unique experiences of African American women in the fight against HIV/AIDS. “African American women are more likely to date within their race and their community. So, if you live in a community where the viral load is high, this puts [Black] women at greater risk of exposure.” This, along with condom negotiation, domestic violence, drug usage by either partner, the lack of knowledge surrounding HIV and reproductive health, and high rates of poverty, Anderson contends, are all part of distinctive social determinants that make prevention efforts among Black women unique.

Like Jones, Anderson’s personal story turned her to advocacy. “I turned to activism because I didn’t want another woman to become infected with this disease. I was taught that my story did not belong to me if there was another woman hurting and broken and in need of hearing it. I want women to see, there is no difference between me and them. I may be positive and they are not, but the vulnerabilities associated with HIV and women are the same. We love and we love hard. I didn’t do anything wrong to become infected. All I wanted was to love and be loved. What’s wrong with that?”