How Empowerment and Education are Helping African-American Women Fight Back against HIV/AIDS


How Empowerment and Education are Helping African-American Women Fight Back against HIV/AIDS

The statistics are well-known. African Americans bear the heaviest burden of HIV of all racial ethnic groups in the United States, says the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). And, the burden of this disease is carried squarely on the shoulders of African-American women. Their rates of new HIV infections are significantly higher than white women, and nearly five times that of Hispanic/Latino women. Adding insult to injury, 2011 CDC data show that almost 75,000 African Americans are living with HIV unaware.

Through my work as an HIV/AIDS advocate over the past decade, I’ve learned that the “why” is a little more complicated than the “what” when it comes to breaking down these inequities. And these inequities have fueled my passion to stem the spread of HIV/AIDS in communities of color. Through research and community interventions, I’ve learned that a lethal mix of economic, social, cultural, biological, environmental, and behavioral factors contribute to the HIV/AIDS devastation in communities of color.

Looking at the statistics along with the contributing factors makes it easy to assume that the future for infected African-American women is grim. What these facts and figures underestimate is the ability of African-American women to turn the tide on this deadly disease. The statistics downplay the resilience of a group of women that continues to thrive in the face of many other challenges. Through progressive and thoughtful interventions like Project THANKS and DASH, African-American women infected with HIV/AIDS are using empowerment and education to manage their diagnoses.

Project THANKS (Turning HIV/AIDS into New Knowledge for Sisters) is an evidence-based intervention that uses a community-based participatory and empowerment approach to prevent and manage the multiple conditions of HIV and other chronic diseases among African-American female HIV+ substance abusers. The goal: help women manage and improve their health when faced with complications associated with substance abuse, HIV, and other chronic diseases such as diabetes and hypertension. The program is targeted to meet the unique personal, familial, and cultural needs of women of color.

Project THANKS is a collaboration with Dr. Meena Mahadevan, Associate Professor of Nutrition Sciences at Montclair State University. The program is implemented over seven group sessions, and each session incorporates techniques that help the women set realistic goals, monitor their progress, and serve as sources of social support for one another. The program incorporates peer-facilitation and group mentoring techniques as well. At the end of each session, the women are encouraged to partner with a peer, and devise “action steps” or strategies that they can implement on their own. Because of participation in this program, dozens of women have stopped using drugs, become active participants in their own health, and maintained an optimal health status despite the complications of HIV and related illnesses.

Another intervention leverages the close relationships between infected mothers and their daughters to break the cycle of HIV/AIDS. Project DASH (Divas Against the Spread of HIV/AIDS) is a mixed-methods study that explores the relationship and communication characteristics between daughters and their HIV+ mothers, as predictors of sexual behaviors and HIV risk of the daughter. The objectives of the study are to: 1) explore the experiences of HIV+ minority women in New Jersey in accessing and navigating the healthcare system, 2) examine the relationship and communication characteristics between daughters and their HIV+ mothers and its impact on HIV prevention; and 3) serve as an intervention that targets mother-daughter sexual communication as a methodology to reduce HIV risk.

The preliminary results of Project DASH have tremendous potential to identify additional drivers of HIV/AIDS in urban communities, and examine specific elements of the mother-daughter relationship that can protect daughters against HIV risk and modifiable risk factors.

The findings from both studies suggest something very powerful: providing comprehensive services that include culturally sensitive education components, in addition to strengthening an individual’s existing personal, social, and environmental support networks, can improve health outcomes among African-American women living with HIV.

The intersection of poverty, disparities, and the social determinants of health are constantly at play. African-American women are naturally strong, even in the face of HIV/AIDS. They are playing up that trait to put survival into their hands. It is imperative that researchers and communities work together to educate and empower each other, as well as those infected, to reduce the prevalence of HIV.

Ndidiamaka N. Amutah, PhD, is an assistant professor at Montclair State University in the Department of Health and Nutrition Sciences. In this capacity, her research focuses on adverse birth outcomes for women of color, HIV/AIDS and women of color in an urban context, and community-based participatory research. To learn more about Dr. Amutah’s research, visit

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