Women Living With HIV: A Lesson in Resilience and Rights That US Congress, the World Cannot Ignore

Teresia Otieno, from Kenya, was 26 years old when she was forcibly sterilized. It was decided for her that, because she was living with HIV, her reproductive rights did not matter, and therefore should be taken away -- permanently. It is a rather astonishing take on where HIV, maternal health and family planning converge.

One hundred years after the world set aside a day for women, Teresia's life is exemplary of both our progress and challenges. She is proof that discrimination against women and violation of reproductive rights is alive and well. Her life demonstrates how HIV, maternal health and family planning intertwine for women as they negotiate the challenges of survival. And she is an example of the beautiful resilience women are capable of -- Teresia is an unstoppable activist for the rights of women living with HIV. She became a superhero to respond to what we all know, but routinely sweep under the rug: Women are disproportionately affected by poverty, discrimination, and HIV, and they are disproportionately ignored.

Here at home in the U.S., Gina Brown, from New Orleans, was pregnant with her daughter when she discovered she was infected with HIV. She was told she should prepare to die. Instead, she took charge of her health care and gave birth to a healthy child free of HIV. Now she does everything she can to make sure no other woman is told she should prepare to die, and that all women -- no matter what their HIV status is -- have a right to access the health care and services they need.

The lives of Gina and Teresia must be at the center of our political discourse around global and domestic health care: HIV, maternal health and family planning services are interconnected and must be accessible in one, affordable place. It's time we recognize that women are whole human beings, and if all our grand global health plans don't meet their needs, we are failing.

The beauty and the brilliance of today is that the opportunity to address the health and rights of women living with HIV is literally right in front of us, right now. Congress is currently scrutinizing foreign assistance funding, and the Global Health Initiative (GHI), which focuses on a woman-centered, integrated approach, is in the beginning stages of implementation. All we have to do now is act with conscience. We know that strategic, fully-funded, rights- and evidence-based global health programs are effective. We know they account for a sliver of the federal budget, and that any cuts will not affect the deficit. We know that we have to streamline programs on the ground, so we're actually meeting the needs of the beneficiaries. And we know that voluntary family planning is not a bonus -- it absolutely has to be included in all HIV and maternal health programs because it is essential to women's health and rights.

Despite the demonization and willing dismissal of family planning, we know we're talking about contraception, and we know that the vast majority of Americans use contraception. Yet we accept the fate of 215 million women in developing countries who wish to delay or prevent pregnancy and do not have the means to do so. Family planning is not a political bargaining chip. It is a critical part of HIV and maternal health interventions, and we know that. The question now is whether or not we are brave enough to act on it.

Today, after 100 years, the most effective thing we can do is decide how we will be remembered in another 100 years: Were we the generation that was brave enough to recognize, and say out loud, that women living with HIV must be brought out of the margins and into the center of our discourse, policies and advocacy on global health? Was this the Congress that spent wisely and honored commitments, or did we, as a collective whole, not pay the slightest bit of attention while women were senselessly dying around us, leaving their families, communities, and societies irreversibly diminished? Today is the day that we choose.