International Women’s Day – The Power is Ours

Thursday, March 8th, 2018 in Event, Women living with HIV

Ahead of International Women’s Day, on the 7th March, Positively UK’s Women’s Room and Act Up Women, held a spectacular event to celebrate the collective and individual power of women with HIV and to highlight the importance of Women Centred Peer Support services. The event featured collective poetry by women with HIV, the young activist and poet Bakita, and a mind-blowing Fashion Runaway where over 20 women strutted with pride, confidence and humour. Here is a summary of the welcoming speech by Positively UK’s Deputy CEO Silvia Petretti.

We are here to mark International Women’s Day, and it is important to remember the history behind what we are celebrating. International Women’s day was set in remembrance of strikes women workers set up in St Petersburg in Russia in 1917. Women were asking for better pay and better working conditions. It was the escalation of those strikes the brought about the October Revolution in Russia. One of the biggest power shifts in history. We must remember that as women we have a very long history of fighting for justice.

This fashion show is a humongous step for us as women with HIV, as openness about HIV can lead to being harshly judged, rejected, and even being at the receiving end of violence. The Catwalk is the fruit of over two months of workshops. We discussed, we wrote poetry, we watched films on the history of HIV activism, we stitched and we bitched, while sewing our outfits, we spoke to each other about women and leadership, we laughed and we argued! In this way we created our Fashion Show.

A few facts on women and HIV:

  • Globally Women are the largest group affected by HIV, 18 million of us have the virus
  • In the UK we are the second largest group with HIV 31%, although you rarely hear about us
  • 80% of women living with HIV in the UK are Black or from other ethnic minority groups
  • Poverty, and disproportional impact of welfare cuts create a huge burden on our lives
  • We experience racism and hostility towards migrants

Moreover, there is a strong link between HIV and violence against women. A study in Homerton hospital in Hackney reported a 52% prevalence of Intimate Partner Violence amongst women with HIV. More than double that the general population.

When we have discussions in our groups, as we support women to develop a better understanding of violence against women in all its forms – not just a black eye – but emotional and financial violence, coercion and control. If we ask for a show of hands on average in a group of 22 women 18 will put their hands up to say that they have experienced some form of violence.

But, there is also some great news, and in preparation to this event women wanted for us to focus on some of the good news.

Because of effective treatment for HIV, by taking pills religiously every day, we can expect to live long lives. Moreover we now have 100% scientific evidence that when we take HIV treatment the virus is controlled we do not transmit HIV. It is called U=U: Undetectable equals untransmittable.

As women with HIV we really want everyone to know this. So next time you have an informal chat with a friend, instead of talking about the weather… maybe you could say: have you heard of U=U? Do you know that people with HIV who are on medications cannot transmit HIV?

However, I need to add a caveat on my enthusiasm for HIV treatment, because I know that the pills that I have been taking for the past 18 years, to keep me alive, have not been studied on my body. A huge issue for us as women with HIV is what we call the Gender Gap in research. On average Randomised Clinical Trials, which are used to research the efficacy and safety of ARV’s, enrol only between 15% to 20% of women. No wonder many of us struggle with side effects. According to PubMed: out of an average of 15,000 research papers published on HIV every year only about 500 have women in the title. I can guarantee that most of those are about pregnancy, because as you know… as women, we only matter when we have babies!

Today we are having a Catwalk of Power because we want to challenge the notion that women with HIV are victims. We are not victims. From the beginning of the epidemics women with HIV have been leaders and agents of change. Positively UK was set in 1987, as Positively Women, by two women living with HIV: Jayne and Sheila, who realised there were no services that met their needs – as most services at the time focussed on gay men. Sheila and Jayne set up the ethos of peer support which is still our foundation at Positively UK 31 years later. By creating Positively Women, which later became Positively UK, Jayne and Sheila set up a very profound strong hold of power: collective power. And it is only through collective power that societal changes have happened in history.

We are having a Catwalk of Resistance because if we didn’t resist, we wouldn’t be alive, given the challenges we face daily as women with HIV. Also, the creative process behind this catwalk is in itself a vital act of resistance.

Finally, we are having a Catwalk of Hope because through profound hope we sustain the vision that together we can create a world where women with HIV live with dignity and respect and where we can all share of all aspects of power: power to make decisions, economic power, political power.

The power is ours! THE POWER IS OURS!

This event was only possible because of the solidarity, generosity love and hard work of some incredible people huge thanks to:

Act Up Women who funded the costs of the workshops and the event, especially Mare Tralla and Donna Riddington who co-facilitated all the workshops and donated their expertise, passion and humour as feminist artists. Please check Act Up’s website if you would like to get involved in Direct Action to address HIV and health injustice.

Madam Storm got us all the strutting power, and more, we are all changed women after learning catwalk skills form her. She is a charismatic coach, performer, international dominatrix, who has as a mission in life to unlock women’s potential. If you want to increase confidence in the shortest time possible check her website for Strut Masterclasses. You can follow her on Instagram @MadamStorm

The poet and activist Bakita stunned the room with her words of power. Follow her on twitter @BakitaKK

The British born Bajan poet Dorothea Smartt who enabled us to develop our collective poem.

Thank you to The Big Lottery who funds Positively UK Women’s Project.

Thank you to MAC Makeup and especially Abigail Rowley and her team for always supporting our events and making us all look even more fabulous on the Catwalk!

And of course, the biggest thank you to all the 25 women with HIV who strutted for International Women’s Day 2018 with all their power, and stated: I am here. We are here: The Power is Ours!

written by Silvia Petretti