Monday, August 15, 2011

Camp for girls at risk of HIV aims to boost self esteem

By Robin Farmer

HENRICO COUNTY, VA Sun Aug 14, 2011 10:50pm BST

HENRICO COUNTY, VA (Reuters) - The girls camp in eastern Henrico County has no traditional activities such as fishing or swimming but provides its young participants with statistics scarier than any campfire story.

One in five Virginians with HIV is a black woman, they are told, and the HIV infection rate among blacks in 2009 was almost eight times the rate of whites.

The campers learning such hard facts are part of the SISTA SPEAK Empowerment Camp, a pilot HIV prevention program sponsored by the Fan Free Clinic, the first no-cost public health care clinic in Virginia.

Some 21 girls, ages 13 to 21, considered at risk for unhealthy relationships, were recommended by social workers for the free camp, which came to a close this weekend. The camp was funded by a $10,000 grant from a local high school.

At the camp, the girls joined activities, heard speakers and talked about HIV/AIDs and its toll on black people around Virginia, the nation and the globe.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said that from 2006 to 2009, the HIV-infection rates surged for homosexual and bisexual black men. Sex with an HIV-infected man is the primary source of infection for black women.

The HIV infection rate among black men was the highest of any group by race and sex -- more than six times that of white men -- and the rate among black women was 15 times that of white women, the CDC said.

An alarming rise in new HIV infections in young, black gay and bisexual men circles back to women, said Andrew Skerritt, author of the upcoming book, "Ashamed to Die: Silence, Denial, and the AIDS Epidemic in the South."

"Many women feel 'I'm in a situation where I need to put out to get a man.' The (lack of) availability of black men gives black men an advantage. So the power in the relationship has shifted and black women will compromise and the price of that compromise too many times is HIV," Skerritt said.

Karen Legato, executive director of the Fan Free Clinic, agreed that most outreach is aimed at black males having sex with males.

"But who do they think they are infecting? They are not just infecting each other," she said.

The week-long camp, located on a commercial strip near Richmond, features activities designed to boost self esteem and teach HIV prevention strategies.

One wall was decorated with portraits of accomplished African-American women such as Coretta Scott King and Angela Davis who organizers hoped would inspire them.

The words "Wisdom of Our Ancestors" adorned a doorway, as well as Langston Hughes' poem "Harlem" ("What happens to a dream deferred?...") and a Nelson Mandela quote, "The more informed you are the less arrogant and aggressive you are."

Jet Magazines and books by African-American authors lined tables, across from enlarged copies of President Barack Obama on the cover of Ebony Magazine and a quilt with symbols from the Underground Railroad.

"The stronger your self identification and self worth, the easier it is to say no and remove yourself from situations that can cause you a lifetime of pain," said Charlene Brown, Fan Free Clinic's case manager.

The campers were asked during one session to name five ways to protect against HIV and AIDS.

Several teens shouted their No. 1 answer.

"Wrap it up!" they said, referring to using a condom.

Brown prompted them with the remaining answers -- abstinence, making the right decisions, checking your status and keeping your word.

Porsha Brockington, 17, said the program was making her change her attitude and actions.

"I realized sex isn't that important. I will be abstaining," she said. "And I want to always know my status."

(Editing by Barbara Goldberg and Ellen Wulfhorst)

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