On March 10th of every year, there are countless articles, acknowledgements, and events highlighting and celebrating women living with HIV/AIDS. It is also a day that spotlights prevention, testing, and awareness among all women. While these are all important, what would be most transformative is if we took daily action to center the needs of women as it relates to the complexity of HIV, not based on our own assumptions of what those needs might be, but by listening and lifting to the forefront those issues that most severely impact a woman’s ability to make her own healthcare a priority. We lift them by minimizing our assumptions and fighting for the resources and opportunities that will transform their lives. We lift them up through listening and by following. On this NWGHAAD I lift up the life of a dear friend, whose light I carry with me every day.
We were childhood friends, separated by the years, until she reached out via social media to reconnect. Picking up right where we left off in our teens, we poured our lives out to one another. She had seen my posts about HIV prevention—she felt I could be trusted with what had become her deepest secret. She shared her HIV status, and I did my best to lift her up. She was not in need of linkage to HIV care, but a shoulder. She was in need of a job, a mentor for her teenage son who was struggling with his own HIV care, a church where she felt accepted.
She was diagnosed with HIV during the delivery of her first son. Her husband had not disclosed his own HIV status, and transmitted it to her during their marriage. She processed that news alone, as she did not have a support system she trusted with the complexity of her situation. She felt isolated and ashamed. She could not find the resources, internally or in her surroundings, to work through it all. She couldn’t find a therapist she felt comfortable with and struggled to find supplemental income as her marriage came to an end. Her concerns were dismissed by providers she trusted, as she battled the guilt of her baby’s HIV diagnosis. She was not seen. She was not lifted up. I’m not sure she knew there was such a thing as a National Women and Girls’ HIV/AIDS Awareness Day.
Some years later she was diagnosed with cervical cancer. She would talk about the doctors not understanding her exhaustion with the invasive medical care. She felt ignored and dismissed. She didn’t feel comfortable going to support groups for women living with cancer, because she felt unworthy — like a fraud – because she still carried her HIV status as a secret. The cancer became too much for her body to bear, and I recall being at her bedside the night before she died. Stroking her cheek as tears rolled down mine, wishing that I (we) had done more to lift her up.
On this day, I honor her life and legacy. She and thousands of other women who today feel unseen and alone. The thousands of women who do not see themselves as being worthy of a celebration. You are so worthy of this day and more. We will fight with you, for you, and behind you. This day is a call to action. It is our reminder.
Dafina M. Ward, JD
Senior Manager, Grant Operations and Strategy
Southern AIDS Coalition