As communities across the globe commemorate World AIDS Day on Thursday, Oakland women will be launching a campaign to support the rights of women around the country living with HIV.
The U.S. Positive Women’s Network (PWN), a project of Oakland-based Women Organized to Respond to Life-threatening Disease (WORLD), will kick off its “Count Us In!” campaign Thursday with a march to Oakland City Hall, followed by a press conference. The campaign seeks to uphold the rights of HIV-positive women despite healthcare changes threatening to limit or eliminate many services and programs dedicated to women.
“What we’re seeing with economic change and healthcare changes after healthcare reform passed is a huge shift in prioritizing funding streams,” said WORLD advocacy coordinator Sonia Rastogi. “It’s having a negative impact on existing services for women living with and vulnerable to HIV.”
According to Rastogi, some women-centered HIV organizations throughout the country have already been forced to close their doors. Some of these organizations expect to cut between 60 to 75 percent of their programs for women, shifting funding to other areas of HIV care because of budget cuts and lack of resources. North Oakland’s Women’s Choice Clinic, which had provided reproductive and sexual health services since 1972 and was located on Arlington Avenue, shut down in 2009, citing slow Medi-Cal reimbursements from the state.
“One of the main objectives locally is prioritizing HIV services that address the realities of women’s lives and for women-centered services to have the funding and capacity to make those services comprehensive,” Rastogi said. “In the next year or two, funding cycles to women-centered services will decline or be eliminated, but we don’t completely know what’s going to happen.”
Rastogi and her PWN colleagues hope Thursday’s campaign launch will incorporate the broader community in their pursuit for HIV-positive female rights. The program begins with an 11 am video screening at the downtown Oakland WORLD offices, showcasing short films of HIV-positive female leaders. Participants are then invited to march to the steps of city hall where local leaders in the HIV community and city representatives are scheduled to speak at a press conference. Though speakers have yet to be confirmed, Rastogi said organizers hope to feature representatives from the offices of Mayor Jean Quan and Congresswoman Barbara Lee.
“We’re also running a photo booth where whether you’re HIV-positive or an ally, you can describe why you support upholding positive women’s rights,” Rastogi said. “It’s a call to everyone to ask why can we can count on you.” Participants will be asked to complete the sentence, “Count me in because,” with their reason for supporting HIV-positive women’s rights on a sheet of paper, then they will pose with the written message. The photos will then be uploaded to PWN’s website and Facebook page.
Though this is the first campaign WORLD has launched on World AIDS Day, the organization has commemorated the annual event throughout its history. Started in 1991, WORLD began in a North Oakland living room when founder Rebecca Dennison tested positive for HIV and was unable to locate resources in the East Bay for women.
Dennison and a small group of HIV-positive women took WORLD from a small, local newsletter to a multi-faceted organization, offering local support groups, prevention awareness, educational retreats and more. WORLD began reaching out to a national audience in 2008 with the launch of PWN, a project dedicated to increasing the impact HIV-positive women have on policies affecting their care.
“The focus of the campaign is on women already diagnosed as HIV-positive, but also our whole message is grounded in human rights,” Rastogi said. “The human rights violations that continue to happen to HIV-positive women—the right to have a child, the right to quality health care—those are the things that are invisible that nobody knows about.”
According to the most recent Alameda County Public Health Department’s AIDS Epidemiologic Report, Oakland has the highest number of female AIDS cases of any city in the county, making up 630 of the county’s total 973 female cases in 2006. On a national level, women have accounted for a growing share of HIV diagnoses, making up just seven percent of all cases in 1985 and constituting 25 percent of the total number by 2008, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Rastogi hopes further action from PWN will draw nationwide support for continued care as HIV continues to impact such a large population of women.
“This is actually an issue that impacts everybody,” Rastogi said. “The broader call for action is to make all women a priority.”