Women struggling with poverty, violence, gender inequity, and rigid cultural and religious norms, are becoming the face of the worldwide HIV pandemic, said Cynthia Poindexter during the Institute for Women and Girls’ second annual Women’s Symposium on March 8 in the Lowenstein Center on the Lincoln Center campus.
According to Poindexter, an associate professor at Fordham University’s Graduate School of Social Services, almost half of the 40 million persons infected with the virus worldwide are women, and the numbers are increasing. The number of U.S. women infected with HIV rose by a third between 2001 and 2003. The situation is even more dire for minorities in the United States, as black and Latino women account for approximately 80 percent of women with AIDS, yet they represent only 25 percent of the total female population.
“We tend to think of our [U.S.] epidemic as being under control,” said Poindexter. “But the proportion of women to total HIV cases in the U.S. is increasing faster than in any other country.”
The situation for women is exponentially worse in the developing world, where 98 percent of all women with HIV live. In developing counties, women have historically been denied equal access to education, housing, health care, public assistance and legal representation, all of which can make them more vulnerable to the disease, said Poindexter.
During a panel discussion following Poindexter’s presentation, Tonya Perry, Ph.D., an associate professor at Fordham’s Graduate School of Social Service, said that promoting social and economic empowerment is vital to stemming the surge in HIV infections among women.
“Certainly we must focus on preventative intervention,” said Perry, a former John Hopkins International AIDS Research Fellow who has traveled extensively throughout Africa examining the impact of HIV among women. “But it is clear that in order for our efforts to truly make a difference, we must address the interplay between gender and socioeconomic inequality and vulnerability to HIV.”
An increase in funding for AIDS education, behavior modification and socioeconomic reform is necessary to mitigate the factors that are working against women in this pandemic, said Elizabeth Cooper, J.D., an associate professor at Fordham Law School who worked as counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union’s AIDS Project in New York City during the early 1990s.
Poindexter agreed, noting that factors contributing to the spread of HIV must be aggressively addressed.
“If HIV is being helped along its destructive path by authority, then that authority must be confronted, whether it’s a patriarchal culture, a neglecting government, a profit-seeking pharmaceutical company or an unresponsive religious body,” said Poindexter. “When tradition, politics and dogma contribute to death, how can we let that stand?”
The Women’s Symposium was sponsored by Fordham’s Institute for Women and Girls and the International Center at the Graduate School of Social Services.