Iris House Summit sees racism as a hidden driver of HIV

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Racism, women, HIV and activism – these topics and how they intersect were the focus of the 17and Annual Women as the Face of AIDS Summit, held May 2 and hosted by Iris House, a New York-based center for women and families struggling with HIV. The theme of the summit was “Racism: the hidden driver of HIV”.

« BIPOC [Black, indigenous and people of color] women continue to be a vulnerable population, and this event fills a great need in our community for them,” Iris House CEO Ingrid Floyd explained in a statement about the HIV summit. “With women’s health at the forefront, while providing space to create a discourse around these issues, lends credence to this annual event.”

It was the first time since 2019 that the event was held in person, although many discussions were available virtually and several speeches were posted on social media, such as the keynote below:

Celeste Watkins-Hayes, PhD, professor of sociology at the University of Michigan’s Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy, delivered the keynote address, “When and Where We Enter: Towards a Feminist and Antiracist Agenda.” You can watch his speech in the Facebook post above and here.

The summit also honored three pioneering women working to end HIV: activist and public speaker Marvelyn Brown, peer educator and The Well Project Ambassador Maria Mejia and Lady Burg Founder and CEOAndy Masonia Traylor. (For a collection of POZ articles on each woman, click Brown, Mejia and Traylor.)

In addition to speakers and a networking lunch, the summit included a presentation from ViiV Healthcare on its brand new initiative, “From Risk to Reason – Reframing HIV Prevention and Care for Black Women,” and a dozen small group sessions.

During the breakout sessions, participants explored topics such as “Racial and Ethical Considerations around Breastfeeding for Women and Other Parents Living with HIV”, “Domestic Violence Prevention in Vulnerable Communities – Prioritizing Healthy Relationships and Planning for Safety” and “The Invisible Black Woman—Centering Black Women, Femmes and Girls in Conversation About HIV Care and Treatment.

Senior lecturer Watkins-Hayes is also the author of Rebuilding a Life: How Women Living with HIV/AIDS Confront Inequalities, for which she interviewed more than 100 women living with the virus in the Chicago area. She talked about the findings of her book during her speech. POZ, a sister publication of Real Health and Tu Salud, interviewed Watkins-Hayes when Make a new life was published in 2019. Below is an excerpt related to the theme of the summit:

You write that the women in your book face “wounds of inequality.” Can you elaborate on this expression and its context? What are the most common wounds of inequality?

We often hear the term “social determinants of health” when talking about health inequalities, but in my opinion, this term can minimize the injustices and harms directly and indirectly committed against marginalized populations. I prefer ‘inequality wounds’ because they highlight inequality as the main driver of health disparities and invite us to think about how people are hurt by differences in resources and power. that we too often consider to be an acceptable status quo. The wounds of inequality – large and small wounds to personal, family and community well-being – result from interpersonal, institutional or systemic violence or trauma rooted in the exploitation of unequal power dynamics. The wounds of inequality produce, and are produced by, a compromised ability to protect oneself from harm.

The HIV/AIDS epidemic is both exemplary and fueled by the wounds of inequality. The virus is transmitted through social and sexual networks, and our networks tend to be segregated by race and class and have unequal access to protective resources such as information, prevention and treatment resources. In addition, some of the main drivers of the epidemic, such as homophobia, racism, transphobia, sexism and poverty, shape historical and current disparities in health care access and quality, as well as that our political and policy responses to these issues in ways that leave marginalized groups more vulnerable to HIV than more privileged sectors of society.

“Rebuild a Life” by Celeste Watkins-Hayes

What is the main conclusion of your book that you would like to leave to the POZ reader?

The most important conclusion of the book is that we neglect the lives and experiences of marginalized populations at our collective peril. When I look at the success of the HIV/AIDS movement and the work that remains to be done, the underlying theme is how people belonging to the minority – those who are systematically marginalized on the basis of sexuality, race, class, gender identity and other status – have created a movement and a tangible support structure to save and improve not only their own lives, but also those around them. The HIV movement has led to important medical discoveries, changed the face of patient-doctor interactions, and generated models of what wraparound holistic care can look like in a variety of settings. At a time when those on the margins are regularly and visibly attacked and ignored, the danger of counting people and devaluing what they can contribute couldn’t be more relevant.…

By interviewing women who have been living with HIV for over a decade, I have been able to illustrate how the HIV epidemic helps us identify how women go from what I call ‘dying to’ to ‘living with’ to “thrive despite” the personal traumas and systemic wounds of inequality, including but not limited to HIV… The common threads that made these personal transformations possible were the resilience of women as well as the strength collective of the HIV community.

Additionally, in February 2021, Iris House launched a campaign to promote testing for HIV, Hepatitis C and sexually transmitted infections and the importance of mental health among young people. To learn more and see some of the campaign images, check out ‘#BeGlowdAF: Young people encourage peers to get tested for HIV and Hep C’.


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