It is impossible to ignore the physical beauty, vivacious personality and perpetually positive attitude of Michelle Anderson, Ms. Plus America 2011. Michelle displayed incomparable courage when she became the first woman living openly with HIV to hold a national pageant title in the US. But the story doesn’t end there. Michelle, like one in two American women living with HIV also lives with a history of intimate partner violence.
There is a clear link between intimate partner violence and trauma and HIV infection among women. Of the approximately 300,000 women living with HIV in the United States today, 55 percent report having experienced intimate partner violence. One in five report physical abuse following their HIV diagnosis with half of these directly related to their being HIV-positive.
According to U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), women experiencing IPV have a heightened risk of HIV infection through forced sex with an infected partner, limited or compromised power to negotiate safer sex practices, and increased sexual risk-taking behavior. And, if HIV-positive, they may delay taking actions to address their health.
While Michelle eventually found love and plans to marry this spring, along her path she experienced abusive relationships, drug addiction and ultimately a diagnosis of HIV. Michelle says she was, “looking for love in all of the wrong places.” With her self-esteem shattered by her abusers she, “made some uninformed decisions” and didn’t always protect herself from HIV.
The good news is there is a movement to bring more attention to the intersection of intimate partner violence and HIV and address the underly issues. Organizations from both the IPV and HIV worlds are working to ensure that women like Michelle get the care they need sooner and that the response is coordinated.
In 2012, President Barack Obama issued a Presidential Memorandum that addresses the Intersection of HIV/AIDS, Violence against Women and Girls, and Gender-related Health Disparities. The resulting plan seeks to integrate violence prevention and HIV programming into health services.
Erin Nortrup with AIDS United, an organization that has been part of a White House task force on these issues, believes this attention will help integrate policy at the federal, state and program levels.
The Domestic Violence Hotline – a leading national resource for those facing IPV — is integrating HIV into all of their programming. Love is Respect, a joint project with Break the Cycle, provides chat, text, and phone services to young adults concerned about IPV. Love is Respect is also increasing its HIV resources and responses.
Leading women’s health providers, like Planned Parenthood, are also doing more to integrate HIV and IPV screening into their clinical practice. Vice President of Education, Leslie Kantor, reports that Planned Parenthood provides rapid HIV testing and screening for IPV in all 700 of its health centers across the country. She adds, “We are very proud that we were one of the first healthcare providers to include IPV screening as part of routine healthcare.” In 2014, Planned Parenthood screened more than 1.6 million women for IPV and provided HIV testing to more than 650,000 people.
Today at an event at the White House, “Stepping Out of the Shadows: HIV & Violence against Women and Girls,” organized to bring attention to these issues, Planned Parenthood joined with Greater Than AIDS – a leading national response to the U.S. epidemic – and the National Domestic Violence Hotline /Love is Respect to announce a new public information partnership to provide more resources for women who may be at risk or facing these situations.
Tina Hoff of the Kaiser Family Foundation, a founding partner of Greater Than AIDS, said the new effort will include targeted media messages and community tools to help remove the stigma and shame that keeps many women from seeking support and care. The campaign will be presented as part of the Greater than AIDS Empowered campaign for women. When it launches this fall, it will be widely distributed by Greater Than AIDS and Planned Parenthood Federation of America working with other partners and made available free of cost to other organizations across the country.
If you are in an abusive relationship, experts at the National Domestic Violence Hotline recommend telling someone you trust and making a plan to leave. “I didn’t say I was leaving,” Michelle shares. “I cooked, I cleaned then one day I left. He had no idea I was setting things in motion.” Most importantly, if you are feeling threatened right now, call 911 or the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233.
The CDC advises that all Americans be tested as part of routine health care, and HIV testing is recommended for all pregnant women. Given the high association with HIV, women experiencing IPV should consider an HIV test and other sexual health screenings. Like many other sexually transmitted disease, HIV may show no symptoms. The only way to know if you are HIV positive is to get tested.
Free and low-cost HIV testing is available across the country. Click here to find HIV/AIDS prevention and care resources near you.
Early diagnosis and treatment of HIV improves health, extends life and can reduce the risk of passing the virus to others. Given the benefits of treatment, it is recommended that people who test positive begin antiretroviral treatment as soon as possible. For HIV-positive pregnant women or women considering becoming pregnant, treatment can reduce the risk of passing the virus to the baby to less than one percent.
For women living with HIV, to reduce the risk of violence when they disclose their status to partners The Well Project advises:
- Choose a public place
- Consider including a third-person
- Risk may be greater if someone feels lied to, or put at risk
- Local health departments may help you disclose anonymously.
As part of her recovery, Michelle uses writing as a release. Her blog, A Girl Like Me, is a regular feature of The Well Project, a web-based information resource for women living with HIV and their supporters. According to a recent survey conducted by The Well Project executive director, Krista Martel, explains women are “more likely to feel a sense of hope after engaging with our resources.” Other national resources for women living with HIV include the Positive Women’s Network USA.
Michelle’s blog reveals her healing journey that led to increased self-love and the confidence to become a national, public voice speaking out about her experience with HIV and violence. “I have learned that whatever he was saying was not true and that I was better than what he was saying.