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HIV/AIDS and Women of Color

By Zina Age

Who hasn't been told these things at some point during your childhood? Our families requested that we respect their privacy, but in the African-American community our need for privacy seems to have morphed into something more insidious - a "veil of secrecy."

In the nine years as Founder/Director at Aniz, Inc. (a non-profit agency dedicated to HIV/AIDS prevention, education, and therapy) it is not uncommon to see a grandmother, mother, and daughter all HIV-positive in one or another of the multiple treatment programs offered by Aniz Inc. In some cases, each woman believed they were the only HIV+ member of the family! And why haven't these Women of Color disclosed their status? Well, a lot of that decision depends on larger society's attitudes towards HIV+ women. Will she be considered The Victim or The Villain?

Depending upon how a woman contracted the virus, society may view her in two very different lights. Did she contract the virus as a married woman, the victim of a philandering husband, or maybe a "Down Low" brother, so to speak? According to the larger society, she is then The Victim---An object of pity. Many black women are still carrying the legacy of the Strong Black Woman or Superwoman. The last thing these women want to be seen as is an object of pity.

On the other hand, did she contract the virus through IV drug use or drug abuse-induced prostitution? Well, then society labels her The Villian to be scorned, ridiculed, and cast out. In any case, a woman diagnosed with HIV is likely to not disclose her status for fear of pity, scorn, or both. Her HIV status becomes something to be ashamed of, something to hide, and something to feel guilty about. The goal then becomes to not air dirty laundry (HIV status), indeed.

As a result, there are scores of HIV+ women of color in hiding. And to make matters worse, women are also being ignored. I find it extremely disturbing that when Gwen an African American woman journalist (editor of The Washington Week) moderated the VP debates, neither candidate was even aware that black Women between 25 and 44 were 14 times as likely to die of AIDS complications that their white counterparts. VP Candidates Cheney and Edwards were so unaware of the epidemic that neither of them could even come up with a cogent plan to investigate the issue, much less halt spread of this preventable disease we call AIDS. Has our secrecy, our shame, our guilt made us so invisible?

It's time to shed some light on the facts about HIV/AIDS and black women:​

In 2003, African-American women had a 23 times greater diagnosis rate than white women.

Due to various societal factors, AA women are 14 times as likely to die from AIDS complications that white women

72% of newly diagnosed cases of HIV from 1999-2003 were African American women

Information drawn from different studies shows that during heterosexual sex, women are about twice as likely to become infected with HIV from men as men are from women.

In a CDC article titled "HIV/AIDS among African Americans" several risk factors for HIV infection are outlined. They are: Poverty, Denial, Partners at Risk, Substance Abuse, and the Sexually Transmitted Disease Connection. Of these five risk factors, three if not all can be tied directly to a legacy of secrecy, shame and guilt:



Communities of people of color have been a little slower to respond to the HIV crisis in America as well as globally. We have denied that in our community we might engage in behaviors like homosexuality, IV drug use- major HIV risk factors. In fact, there are no statistics available that reveal the numbers of black men who have had sex with men (willingly or under coercion while in the prison industrial complex) who refuse to identify as bisexual or homosexual.


Partners at Risk

African American women are most likely to become infected by their heterosexual partners. So, it follows that we, women of color should be invested in finding out our partners HIV risk factors. Has he engaged in unprotected sex with various partners? Has he ever had sex with another man? Has he ever done IV drugs? When's the last time he was tested for HIV? What is his serostatus? These are valid questions. Privacy is one thing, but our right to have the knowledge to save our lives is paramount.


The Sexually Transmitted Disease (STD) Connection

Again, we need to be comfortable in asking our partner's HIV/STD Status as well as divulging our own. The presence of certain STDs can increase HIV infection 3 to 5 times.

HIV/AIDS is preventable. As Women of Color we have to choose whether to continue living our lives under the veil of secrecy, existing under a blurry haze of shame and guilt, continuing to be ignored. Or we can become truly Strong Women of Color who love and nurture ourselves as we fight for our health and the health of our daughters.

HIV (Human immunodeficiency Virus) is the virus that eventually causes AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome). Being HIV- positive, or having HIV disease, is not the same as having AIDS. Often people are HIV+ and lead normal, healthy lives for many years. A person who is HIV+ look just like a person who is HIV-. The HIV virus slowly wears down the immune system (immune Deficiency Syndrome). When your immune system is damaged, it can no longer fight the simple germs we all come into contact with everyday. Something as simple as a common cold might be threatening to a person who has developed AIDS.

Peace beyond passion,

Zina Age, MSW, MAC


Aniz, Inc.

"You don't put your business our there in the streets"
"You don't air your family's dirty laundry"
"What happens in this house, stays in this house"
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