Young, African American Women Talk about HIV/AIDS

Norma Porter Anthony | 3/24/2010, 9:55 a.m.

New Group Seeks to Enlighten Girls and Women about Lifestyle Choices

Sadly, the leading cause of death among African American women between the ages of 25-34 is HIV/AIDS and three percent of the District€s population lives with the virulent disease that attacks the immune system.

That€s why five young, sassy African American women have formed an organization -- Divas, Making Our People Healthier -- to educate €sistas€ about options designed to prevent them from becoming a statistic.

Despite drizzle and overcast skies, a total of 50 women and teenage girls attended a health summit, €S.O.S. €" Saving Our Sisters from HIV/AIDS€ at THEARC in Southeast, Sat., March 13.

"[The District€s] rise in HIV/AIDS cases among women and girls is [both] alarming and heartbreaking especially since the disease is preventable," said Tennille Daniels, co-founder of the newly formed Divas organization.

"The S.O.S Summit was created to shed more light on HIV/AIDS in our community, encourage dialogue between young women and equip these women with educational resources and lifestyle tactics that they [can] practice and pass on to loved ones, and continue to promote the theme of healthy living," the Burtonsville, Md., resident said.

The half-day event was sponsored by Divas, MPH along with the D.C. Department of Health€s Commission for Women, the D.C. Office on Women€s Policy and Initiatives and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office on Women€s Health.

Those who showed up wanted to learn about how HIV/AIDS affects the immune system and how to prevent infection.

€Things are changing so much [with HIV/AIDS, sexual behavior and the community], it€s important to stay on top of things and have the latest information,€ said Olivia Scott, 30.

Scott, a program manager who lives in Northeast listened intently while experts spelled out how HIV/AIDS is contracted and ways that teen girls and women can assert themselves and use negotiation skills if they encounter push back from their partners about the idea of using condoms.

Tajaya Jenkins attended the health summit with an older cousin. While Tajaya, 13, said that she is not sexually active, she wanted to learn more about how the HIV/AIDS epidemic is affecting her peers.

€I want to be more aware of HIV/AIDS and learn more about the disease,€ she said.

€Black women and girls are at high risk. It€s kind of sad because a lot of girls and women aren€t protecting themselves. They need to get tested and use condoms.€

Creating spaces for candid dialogue and places that women can obtain information about healthier sexual choices like the S.O.S. health summit can help to reduce the spread of HIV/AIDS in the Black community.

Tiffany West-Ojo, bureau chief of the Strategic Information Bureau for the D.C. Department of Health€s HIV/AIDS Administration, said that conversations should focus on the sexual behaviors of Black women and heterosexual men in the Black community. Heterosexual sex remains the leading method in which the virus is transmitted.

During a time when the nation and popular culture appear to accept open relationships or €hook ups€, West-Ojo said, Black women in the District must be more conservative.

€Everybody can have these open relationships, but it€s not a safe environment to have those kinds of relationships in D.C.€ she said.

€What€s different about us is the environment that we€re in. D.C. has 600,000 people and there€s probably 20,000 people living with HIV/AIDS. In D.C., the norm is becoming the dangerous.€

To combat the virus, the District is also promoting new methods for women to protect themselves from HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). The District is the first jurisdiction in the country to distribute a new female condom, the FC2, which has been approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

The FDA approved the first version of the female condom in 1993, but American women did not purchase the product and argued that it was too expensive.

Courtesy Photo of DIVAS, MPH
But now, with a new design and a glam campaign backed by the MAC AIDS Fund, an HIV/AIDS endowment established by MAC cosmetics, District officials and community leaders are hopeful that the new female condom will provide another alternative for women.

€The new female condom will empower women by giving them a choice of options,€ West-Ojo said.

€I think a lot of women€s struggle is that they are economically or socially dependent on their partners and they don€t really have the power to demand that their partner uses a condom.€

A. Toni Young, executive director of the Community Education Group in Southeast, agrees with West-Ojo.

€The female condom is a method of protection that women can control,€ she said.

€Male condoms are very male driven. It is important for women to have an option; that they can control to prevent HIV/AIDS, pregnancy and other STDs,€ Young said.