Today is the 24th World AIDS Day. This year is the 30th anniversary of the first reported case of HIV/AIDS. And as this is my first official blog for the Huffington Post Women page, I think it's only right that I write about how women can make a difference in putting an end to HIV; more specifically, how my own mother made a difference in fighting this virus.
My friends and I came of age during an unusual little moment in history. In the late 80s and early 90s, the world was just starting to understand that HIV was an indiscriminate virus. Ali Gertz was dying of AIDS-related illnesses. Magic Johnson had just announced his HIV status. It was clear that HIV didn't care about your sexual orientation or your gender or your race or religion. It was a scary time, a time in which parents became so concerned with preventing HIV that they talked to their children about condoms, even if they had never spoken to them about sex. Today, as I listen to my students -- many of whom have never had a conversation with their parents about sex, let alone HIV -- I know that it was a fleeting, albeit an amazing, time in our history.
For me, that amazing time, was helmed by my mother. In 1992 my mom and her best friend co-founded and co-chaired North Shore University Hospital's AIDS Awareness Committee. It was a fundraising group that had an extraordinary educational arm -- a peer HIV/AIDS training program run by coordinator Carol Kaplan. (Carol's husband, Dr. Mark Kaplan, was Chief of Infectious Diseases at the hospital.) It was one of the first of its kind -- a group designed to educate teens about HIV and AIDS, train them to become educators themselves, and then send them back to their respective schools to educate their classmates. I was one of the first teens to be a part of it.
I remember how it happened. One evening, my younger sister and I had just finished dinner when our parents pulled out two bananas and two condoms. "Girls, you're going to learn how to put on a condom," my father said to us.
"And Logan, you start peer HIV training next week," my mom added. "You're going to learn how to teach others about preventing HIV." My parents and their friends had the amazing foresight to tackle HIV and AIDS in their communities -- not just with money, but also with education -- because they knew that's what mattered most.
That dinner table condom demo was almost twenty years ago, when we were still years away from discovering antiretroviral treatments and medical guidelines for preventing maternal-child transmission. But it's 2011, and we have approximately 50,000 new HIV infections in the United States each year. 50,000 for a virus that is 100 percent preventable. And women represent more than half of global HIV infections. Over 16.6 million women (mothers, sisters, wives, partners, aunts, and friends) are living with HIV. And HIV is the number one cause of death in women ages 15-44 worldwide.
Generally women are at a greater risk of heterosexual transmission of HIV. Biologically women are twice more likely to become infected with HIV through unprotected heterosexual intercourse than men. In many countries women are less likely to be able to negotiate condom use and are more likely to be subjected to non-consensual sex (UNAIDS).
That the parts that kills me -- our lack of respect for women and their bodies and the cultural inability of women to negotiate condom use. I believe that our reliance on and perpetuation of the sexual double standard severely hinders our ability to be sexually and emotionally healthy. If we want to make a difference, women have to stand up for each other. We need to demand protection. We need to demand respect. We need to start challenging that nasty old double standard because it prevents us from speaking up for ourselves. And it prevents us from protecting our sexual health. Consider how many girls and women don't carry condoms because of the fear of being labeled a slut. Women hold the key to changing this. If we refuse to be judged, the label can disappear, and we can be free to make our own independent healthy decisions.
In the end, my mom gave me a great gift. She (and my father) encouraged me to own my voice and to speak up, not just for myself, but for everyone. So today, on World AIDS Day, pass that on. If you're a friend, a sister, an aunt, a mom, a caregiver -- give the women in your life the confidence and freedom to be their own woman. Free from judgment and free to pursue a sexually healthy life.
And if you feel so inclined, please check out the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation's latest campaign: A Mother's Fight
Follow Dr. Logan Levkoff on Twitter: www.twitter.com/LoganLevkoff