Despite efforts by scientists and governments to control the HIV/AIDS epidemic, HIV continues to spread at staggering rates. In the U.S. the disproportionate increase of infection among black women is a particular source of concern.
"It was supposed to be a gay, white, male disease. I wasn't gay; I don't look white do I? And I wasn't a male, so I just turn my cheek and say that doesn't apply to me," said Mrs. B. as she asked to be called, was diagnosed with AIDS 11 years ago.
She had been HIV positive since 1986, when she was a young mother of two small girls and fighting a long addiction to drugs and alcohol. Retrospectively, she tries to recount how she might have been infected, she says, "Well, I don't know exactly how I got infected, because my first husband died with AIDS in '93, but me being a drug user and having unprotected sex. A boyfriend of mine died of AIDS and a girlfriend we share needles with, died with AIDS."
Mrs. B is hardly alone. The number of African American women in the U.S. infected with HIV AIDS is growing alarmingly. Frances Ashe-Goins is the Deputy Director of the Office on Women's Health, at the US Department of Health & Human Services says, "If you do a pie format, in the circle still 75 percent, even of the new cases, are among men who have sex with men, but if you look at the 25 percent of female cases, then you see the greater proportion of African American women and Latino women".
African American women represent the majority of that 25 percent and in Washington DC they are 90 percent of all women reported with AIDS. The main reason, according to experts, is that women still don't believe they can be infected; and in cities such as Washington, where black men have a high rate of infection, black women are at much higher risk.
Ms. Ashe-Goins says, "I don't like to concentrate on men because I like to concentrate on the power of women to protect themselves, regardless of what men are doing, women have the power to protect themselves."
Even though there are numerous programs directed to black women, they may not be enough. Socio-economic factors such as unemployment, poverty, drug use, repeated prison cycles, and the higher ratio of women to men among the African American population, contribute to the increasing numbers of black women infected with HIV/ AIDS.
Toni Young is the director of the Community Education Group, previously known as the National Women and HIV/AIDS Project says, "If I believe my partner may be having sex with men as well as women, I am not going to ask the question because I am afraid of losing my partner. We frequently find women that don't ask the question when they know, they suspect, but they won't ask because of the fear of losing the partner. So it comes back to an issue of self-esteem."
Denial of their risk, drugs and low self-esteem will continue to work against black women in the U.S. Experts' projections indicate there will be more, and more younger, black women with HIV/ AIDS.