The Catwalk for Power, Resistance and Hope. Strutting for women with HIV

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Susan Cole, Sophia Forum Trustee writes on International Women’s Day about women and HIV

This International Women’s Day I planned to write a blog about women with HIV dripping with pathos and negative statistics. Then something happened last night. I had a paradigm seismic shifting experience through The Catwalk for Power, Resistance and Hope – a phenomenal event to celebrate the lives of women with HIV put on by Positively UK and ACT UP Women.

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Too often women living with HIV are portrayed as passive victims. This event bazooka-ed that assumption. Silvia Petretti, Deputy CEO of Positively UK, fiercely challenged the false narrative – whilst dazzling in sparkling vintage. In the face of hardship and violence women with HIV were organising resistance and nurturing hope. “The Power is ours! Amanda Awethu! I am here. I am strong! I am beautiful!“ passionately chanted by women with HIV boomed around the room, shattering misconceptions of victimhood.

Sublimely talented young poet Bakita took to the stage, sharing her staggering powerful poetry that highlights the importance of unpicking self-stigma to improve quality of life. The audience held their breath as her words, piercingly pertinent, seemed to written for each of us. “Where possible, heal together and comfort. Always.”

The highlight of the evening was seeing women with HIV, joyous with sassy self-confidence, strutting their stuff on the catwalk. Many had been previously cowed with uncertainty, but through the phenomenal workshops put on by Positively UK, emerged phoenix like as beautiful stigma busting warriors. Catwalk training from incredible Madam Storm, experienced performer, coach and international dominatrix, certainly helped. She watched from the side, beaming with pride at her spectacular students.

The evening was not simply about the empowerment of women with HIV however, the outrageous inequalities faced by women with HIV were emphasised – including disproportionately high levels of violence, poverty, racism and the impact of devastating cuts to health and support services. Lambeth MP Helen Hayes also highlighted some of these issues when she spoke on the night, recognising the crucial importance of peer support and meaningful involvement of women with HIV in services that affect them.

Silvia affirmed this. “As women with HIV we feel that not enough has been done to actively include women from all backgrounds in policy and research that affects us. The recently announced decrease in new HIV acquisitions, while welcome news, is focused on 5 clinics in Central London that serve mainly men who have sex with men. We say: none should be left behind.”

I spoke to Silvia this morning, still buzzing from the incredible night. She emphasised that long term sustainable funding was crucial for this type of work and there was still a long way to go to ensure women with HIV had a good quality of life.

We are more than our virus. We need more than pills to live. Women led peer support is vital.”

This International Women’s Day let’s stand together to fight for the rights of women with HIV. The Power is Ours! Amandla Awethu!

Susan Cole

Twitter @susancolehaley

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Sophia Forum trustees Sophie, Memory and Susan at the event

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