New York City leads the country among young people age 13-24 testing positive for HIV. And while Black women and Latinas account for 29 percent of the city’s population, they make up 89 percent of all new diagnoses each year.
Given these statistics, in 2005, there wasn’t a local political response addressing the epidemic among women and girls. To fill in that gap, a group of HIV/AIDS advocates came together to talk about what was happening with young girls (PDF).
Then, the Young Women of Color HIV/AIDS Coalition (YWCHAC) was born. Seven years and 150 graduates later, the group’s WE SPEAK peer education group for young women — both HIV positive and negative — has empowered a new generation of female HIV/AIDS activists and leaders. Claire Simon, the organization’s co-founder/co-director sat down with BET.com to talk about her amazing group of young women.
What were some of your major concerns from the beginning?
We hadn’t seen a real local and state response for women and girls since the mid-‘90s with the push to test pregnant mothers for HIV in New York. Obviously, a new one was needed. Girls as young as 15, 16 were testing positive; some were testing positive as a result from sexual abuse; we saw a lot of young girls dating much older men; and there was a lack of information and resources for this demographic. But most important: How could we engage these same young women, have them tell their own stories to help others and to teach them to be advocates?
One of the first steps to finding this out was asking young women, “What do you want? What are your concerns?”
What were the concerns?
They wanted three main things: To have more educational opportunities, to be economically secure and to know more about their health and bodies. They believed that if they graduated from high school and went to college, they would have their own money and not have to depend on someone else. Also having an education meant being able to voice their needs.
Also, they believed that knowing about their bodies — health exams, puberty, menstruation, HIV-risk — would help them be more informed and make better decisions. For them it was simple: More opportunities, more knowledge meant more options in life.
And so the program is really about helping them achieve just that.
Tell us more about the program.
Each year, we have a group of 25-35 high schoolers from all five boroughs and we meet almost every Friday. The meetings are a safe space for young women to learn about HIV/AIDS and other issues, to talk about what they are going through and to develop as peer leaders so that they can go back into their communities.
In terms of events and outings, we also have a summer institute, we’ve had testing parties for youth across the city, gone on retreats and [have] hosted a film festival since 2008. Some of our young women have sat on panels, including the International AIDS Conference this past summer. We even have a few affiliate chapters on college campuses that are taking this message even further to a broader audience.
And we know it’s working because our young women tell us that this program has changed their lives. They can now talk to their mothers, apply for colleges that they didn’t even know existed until now or be confident to see their local councilperson on the train and tell them what more they could be doing for the community.
Most important: These young women really run this program. They set the agenda, create the activities and they tell us what they want to do. We try to make it happen with the resources we have. And let me tell you, in the beginning, we were doing this for free with the help of people donating space, time, food, Metrocards, you name it.
But for me, that’s what you do when something is truly a labor of love.
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(Photo: Beatrice Moritz/Young Women of Color HIV/AIDS Coalition)