This post was co-authored by Mohini Datta-Ray
The full spectrum of how the HIV epidemic has impacted women in Ontario is a relatively new topic. This is, of course, despite women having been affected by HIV since the beginning. Accordingly, the response to the range of effects that HIV has had among HIV-positive women's lives has been slow.
At least a quarter of people living with HIV in Canada are women. Among this group, Indigenous women and women belonging to African Caribbean communities are overrepresented. Women who experience violence acquire HIV at higher rates. Conversely, women who are HIV positive tend to experience violence at higher rates.
Within the HIV epidemic, now in its fourth decade, the medical and cultural inequalities of Canadian society are visible.
The practice of prosecuting people living with HIV for not disclosing their status before having sex plays no small part in the reality facing women living with HIV. It is, at a very real level, an issue of human rights -- rooted in HIV stigma and ignorance and in fact contrary to the scientific evidence available around HIV.
HIV non-disclosure laws are often framed as a protective measure benefiting women and women's rights. However, the reality is that with current legal requirements for disclosure, women are being threatened by their male partners with the possibility of non-disclosure charges. This is especially true of poor women, single-mothers, racialized women and of women experiencing intimate partner violence.
Yet, such forms of abuse often remain invisible, or are only surfaced through traumatic legal proceedings that depend on a she-said-he-said narrative with little understanding of the impact of violence on the lives of many women.
These are some of the challenges that face the women who live with or are at risk for HIV. They are manifold and they are ingrained, but they are not insurmountable.
Significant work is underway that addresses these challenges, with the aim of creating safer and more inclusive spaces for women to access prevention tools, support services, treatment, and community.
Safer and more inclusive means building our services to suit the needs of trans women, poor and working class women, women of colour and survivors of violence, who, collectively, are left out of mainstream services. It means looking at agency programs and practice critically to recognize and address the barriers, both obvious and subtle, that continue to exclude women's access. It means building relationships with women who are living with HIV in our community so that they may identify where we are falling short and where we need to do better.
Much of this work has been building systemic links between the violence against women (VAW) and HIV sectors here in Ontario. A wonderful provincial project, the Women's and HIV/AIDS Initiative (WHAI), is now in its fifth year. Housed at the AIDS Committee of Toronto (ACT) and funded by the Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care, the Initiative funds 17 workers throughout 16 regions in this province. WHAI operates from a community development model and its mandate is broad: to work with the service-providers at women-serving agencies (everything from shelters to hospitals to settlement agencies) to address the social inequities that continue to make women vulnerable to HIV or continue to contribute to HIV stigma.
WHAI's Toronto workers are also housed at ACT. For International Women's Week, ACT's WHAI workers, along with Springtide, organized a well-attended Forum at the 519. Staff from local women's shelters, lawyers, activists, poz women and service providers from multiple sectors collectively explored the challenges and successes of their work and brainstormed together to respond to the gaps that continue to exist.
While many agencies now offer programs specifically suited to the needs of women living with HIV, there is a real need to expand and improve access and safety for women, both locally and abroad. In a movement that has always been forced to operate with urgency, developing and delivering better services to women at risk or living with HIV should be a top priority. We consider it so.
If you are not directly involved in this conversation already there are ways you can be. First is to reduce the stigma and discrimination that all people living with HIV face. Educating yourself and encouraging your networks to do the same has always been the most effective way of doing this.
If you're looking to support ACT and the programs and services we provide, ACT is holding an annual fundraiser called SNAP! on March 26. SNAP! is Toronto's most exciting auction of contemporary art photography. Featuring well-known Canadian artists as well as emerging international photographers, SNAP! is a great way to add to your art collection while supporting a great cause! Tickets are only $100, and are available at snap-toronto.com.
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