Saturday, August 18, 2007

The Feminine Epidemic: Global Intersections of Women and HIV/AIDS

L-R Dr. Rajan Gupta and Beri Hull
Beri Hull, Global Advocacy Officer for the International Community of Women Living with HIV and AIDS.
Dr. Rajan Gupta, presenter and theoretical physicist that works to better understand the evolution of AIDS.
L -R Beri Hull, Julia Dickson-Gomez, Rajan Gupta and Elizabeth Rowley
L-R Jennifer Helen Spruill, instructor and Ph.D. candidate at the University of Chicago, Department of Anthropology and an unidentified conference participant.
Spruill conducted research on sexuality, law, and nationhood in Johannesburg from 1996 to 2000 intermittenty. In 2004 she published a paper titled, (AD)DRESSING THE NATION: Drag and Authenticity in Post-apartheid South Africa.

Human Rights Conference
On May 26, 2007 I dragged myself out of bed and away from papers and course readings to attend a human rights conference presented by the Student Global AIDS Campaign (SGAC) at the University of Chicago. The conference was jointly sponsored by SGAC, The Center for Gender Studies, The Human Rights Program, Your Student Activity Fees and the Norman Wait Harris Memorial Foundation. It is always a good thing to witness this kind of collaboration in bringing important and timely issues before the student body. Unfortunately, the conference was poorly attended and there were some logistical snafus that resulted in a late start. On the other hand,folks, you missed some really excellent information from the five very knowledgeable panelists with important aspects of the HIV/AIDS crisis available to share with the audience.

The five presenters effectively provided an overview on HIV/AIDS and delivered their findings based on their research as follows:

Elizabeth Rowley- Her research focus is the delivery of humanitarian assistance with refugee issues in the post-emergency phase. Her presentation gave me a greater appreciation of the challenges that refugee women face and the vulnerable circumstances they endure because of their status as refugees and the risk of HIV/AIDS infection.

Julia Dickson-Gomez - a medical anthropologist at the Institute for Community Research has extensive field experience with urban high risk groups including substance abusers and commercial sex workers and HIV/AIDS prevention. Her research focus is sex workers in El Salvador. One story depicted the dangerous situations prostitutes are exposed to that included johns not paying the women. Furthermore, an even worse scenario described non payment and assaulting the women they exploit. Some examples depicted women driven to remote locations, gang raped, beaten and tossed out of the car nearly nude. These are horribly graphic reminders of the kind of exploitation some women are subjected to in their attempts to survive. Needless to say, the police are not an option in instances of prostitutes which renders them vulnerable to such exploitation.

Beri Hull, the Global Advocacy Officer for the International Community of Women Living with HIV and AID provided a face and a voice for women living with HIV/AIDS. Her presence was a reminder that we are dealing with real human beings and not mere statistics. She contends that as a woman living with HIV she will continue to advocate for love and acceptance for all people living with HIV. Her candor was refreshing. She is a strong advocate and spokesperson. She provided lots of great suggestions about how to be involved in addressing the crisis we are facing. Her website is and her email is Her organization is based in Washington, DC and also has an office in London, England.

Annie Dude - Her presentation depicted the links between intimate partner violence and the increased vulnerability to sexually transmitted infection, including HIV/AIDS. Dude's perspective is enhanced by her interdisciplinary approach. She received a Ph.D in June from the University of Chicago's Graduate School of Public Policy and she is currently attending medical school at the University of Chicago.

Rajan Gupta - The sole male presenter, a theoretical physicist, with a Ph.D works with the Los Alamos National Laboratory. In 1989 Gupta began to work to better understand the evolution of HIV. In the following years, Gupta developed and conducted education and awareness programs on health and HIV/AIDS, starting in India in 1999 and then extended his work to New Mexico in 2001. Gupta's power point presentation was very compelling and included the usual statistics and overview on HIV/AIDS. However, it also showed the actual women, their children and aspects of their lives as sex workers. It was clear that he and his colleagues have worked very hard to establish personal relationships with the women. Some of the women have come out of the business to now help others. He reiterated what the global statistics reinforce, that is, being a woman places women at risk. In India, sexual assault is a concern he stated, but the statistics of women living with HIV/AIDS indicates that being married is the biggest risk factor. Women are being infected by their partners who conceal their disease from their wives until it is obvious, which by then is too late. The interviews with such women who were dying was heartbreaking. As Gupta contends, "being faithful is worthless."

The dimensions of the problem are much bigger than HIV/AIDS according to Gupta. He demonstrated this by providing statistics that indicate that poverty pushes people into survival mode. The behaviors and lifestyles can only be addressed in poor and marginalized communities if we change the economic realities. However, with the sex workers that he researched he discovered that 80% are coerced into sex work with false promises. These false promises include promises of jobs. The use of alcohol, drugs and debts were other enticements. Sad to say, husbands, relatives and gangs force some of the women into sex work while others were abducted and/or sold into forced prostitution. It is the last recourse for poor women. He described their lives. They are required to have sex with 5-10 customers a day. Most of these women have boyfriends who they do not use condoms with. This is the case because the use of a condom with a lover is the breaking of intimacy. Gupta asserts that empowerment is key to alterring their behavior. The program helps women work on exit strategies, that is, being able to build equity, money management, job skills and fostering supportive partners. Many of the partners do not work and rely on their women for income. Thus, there is no incentive for the males to ecourage their women to leave a life of prostitution. Gupta reiterated that a life style change is needed. Delaying the onset of sexual activity he believes would also help.

For more information go to his website at:

An excellent CD produced by United Nations Development Fund for Women through United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNDFW) was disseminated at the conference. It is titled: The Gender and HIV/AIDS. It is a collection of resources including research, publications, training tools, and multi-media advocacy materials comprised of 360 documents and over 15,600 pages. Go to the following website for further information to obtain a copy:

Peace Out! Qiyamah A. Rahman

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