Last month, fourteen-time Grammy Award-winning artist and HIV advocate Alicia Keys introduced EMPOWERED, an ongoing public information campaign to reach women in the U.S. about HIV/AIDS. At the launch event in Washington, D.C. at the Kaiser Family Foundation, Senior Advisor to the President Valerie Jarrett spoke both personally and professionally about how this disease affects us in so many ways, and detailed how the Obama Administration is tackling this crisis head-on.
Below is a select excerpt from her remarks, published in partnership with the Skoll World Forum.
This is the second event at Kaiser that Alicia and I have attended within the last year. We were here last July, and we are delighted to be back.
The first time we were here, we put the spotlight on black women in D.C. who are HIV positive or living with AIDS. And it was in the middle of the international AIDS conference, which we were so delighted to be able to host here in the United States because President Obama got rid of the travel ban on people who are HIV positive or have AIDS. We thought in the midst of an international conference, it would be so important to look at an issue right here at home in the nation’s capital. And so we had this deeply moving conference with many women who were either HIV positive or who have AIDS, and it was Alicia’s and my intent to lift them up and to put the spotlight on this issue here in the District and to talk about what we could accomplish together.
But, I have to say to you, and Alicia, I know you agree with this, their strength, their courage, their resilience, their good spirit, their humor and willingness to laugh and be so open about their life stories lifted us up. Those women were truly amazing, and I know a few of them are here with us this morning. So please, also, let’s give them a round of applause.
I’ve returned today because of the strong support that the Obama administration, from the President to myself to Grant to everybody who works on this issue want to give to Alicia’s launch of EMPOWERED, which she will describe to you shortly. Now, as you know, the HIV crisis touches every corner of the globe. And it’s personally touched so many of us, including me.
Every day, I carry with me the heartbreak of the death of my sister-in-law, who died nearly twenty years ago from AIDS. I think about Julie and the fact that she left this darling, darling daughter who was five at the time and is now grown and attended the conference with me last year, and I think about the fact that she went months without being properly diagnosed because back then nobody really thought to test a married mom for HIV. By the time she was finally diagnosed, it was too late.
I know we all have tragic stories about how HIV/AIDS has affected our family and friends, and these stories propel us all to continue to fight to end this disease. And while we have made great progress—and we have made great progress—HIV continues in the United States with about 50,000 new HIV infections each year. And about one-quarter of the new HIV infections are among women, but three-quarters of new infections are among women who are black and Latina. The rate of new HIV infections among African-American women is 20 times higher compared with white women, which Drew mentioned, and among Latinas, the rate is 4 times higher.
So there is no doubt the statistics are sobering. But here’s the thing: Every part of society has a role to play in ending AIDS. On our end, President Obama has recognized and demonstrated the need for immediate action, and here are just a few of the steps we’ve taken.
First, in July 2010, President Obama released the nation’s first comprehensive National HIV/AIDS Strategy, which is a blueprint for how together we can make great progress in this fight. The goal of the strategy is to prevent as many infections, and to save as many lives as possible—including through reducing health disparities, improving health and wellness for everyone living with HIV.
To this end, the President’s 2014 budget that he just released last week includes over $23 billion to address HIV/AIDS in the United States, including an additional $10 million from 2012 for the Centers for Disease Control that provides critical prevention and intervention funds. It also includes an additional $20 million, for a total of $2.4 billion for the Ryan White Program to increase access to life-extending care and treatment.
The Ryan White Program, as many of you may know, is named after a young man who was diagnosed with AIDS at age 13. He fought courageously against discrimination and for his right to go to school, the way all children go to school. Today, the program that bears his name works with cities, states, clinics, and local community-based organizations to provide HIV care to more than half a million people each year.
For women specifically, thousands of women at risk for, and living with, HIV will benefit from the Affordable Care Act, which President Obama signed in 2010. And Drew and I were just talking about all of the work he does for the Affordable Care Act. Thanks to this law, insurance companies are now required to provide women with access to a range of preventative services, including HIV testing, without any cost sharing. And starting next year, insurance companies are prohibited from charging women higher premiums than men or denying insurance for pre-existing conditions including HIV.
How many of you were aware of those two provisions? Most of you but not everybody. So when you walk away from here, one of my responsibilities, one of my asks of you, make sure that everybody you know knows what’s available to them. So many people don’t go in for testing because they think it’s going to cost them something, they can’t afford the copay. No longer. No longer because they’re women or simply because they’re HIV positive will they be discriminated against by insurance companies. That’s when you need your health care the most.
We are also addressing the fact that women who live with HIV are at a greater risk of experiencing domestic violence or assault. And I know that hits close to home for many of you, you’re glad I said that. That’s why President Obama established a working group focusing on the intersection of HIV/AIDS, violence against women and girls, and gender-related health disparities. We need holistic solutions, and this working group addresses that need.
Recently released national data does include some good news. HIV infections among women dropped by 21% between 2008 and 2010, and we are hopeful that this trend continues and it will in part because of this initiative. However, stigma and misconceptions continue to be significant drivers of HIV, keeping many from talking openly, using protection, getting tested, and starting and staying on treatment. Not just starting, but you have to stay on your treatments.
At a government level, we continue to address HIV-related stigma as well, which we know is a tremendous barrier to women seeking care. For example, the U.S. Departments of Justice and the Labor aggressively pursue cases of alleged discrimination, something else that’s important for everyone to know. Since 2010, we’ve opened over 40 HIV discrimination cases, and recently we settled four cases in just five weeks this year.
In addition to progress the Obama Administration that we are making on a policy level, today’s EMPOWERMENT launch by Alicia attests to the fact that all, and I mean all of us have the responsibility and the ability to help end the disease. Everyone in this room, everyone who’s watching through the live stream, everyone around the globe can play a role. That’s why Alicia’s campaign is so exciting to us.
Alicia knows what we all should know! And that is the enormous power women have to turn this epidemic around. It was no accident then, that in in this year’s State of the Union, President Obama spoke of reaching an AIDS-free generation in the same sentence that he talked about empowering women. We can turn the corner on the AIDS epidemic, but we will only succeed if we embrace the power that we already have.
In closing, I’d like to share a story about a woman who has done just that, who I understand is here with us today. Last December, the White House hosted a World AIDS Day panel. One of our panelists was Stephanie Brown, a courageous young leader and activist who was diagnosed with HIV when she was 19. Today, she advocates for greater awareness of HIV/AIDS, speaking at community centers and to audiences near her hometown of Fayetteville. She also hopes to start an HIV advocacy group.
Stephanie has used her condition to motivate and empower both herself and others to make a difference. She said, and I quote, “I’m here for a purpose—to help others—and I’m not going anywhere until I’m done.” Well, thank goodness for Stephanie.
She should be an inspiration to us all of us. So this can be the beginning of the end of AIDS—and when I think about Stephanie, when I look around this room and I see so many amazing leaders and advocates and people that care about this issue as we do, I know that if we can change a room, we can change the District. If we can change the District, we can change the United States. And if we can change the United States, my goodness, we can change the world.
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