Women Demand More in AIDS Fight


Recent outreach programs however have begun to show promise. Avahan, a project funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, offered more than $200 million over five years to build infrastructure for sex workers and provide them with preventative health education. The program helped stem the tide of HIV transmission in India and helped sex workers better integrate into society. In a surprising twist, sex workers from one area even banded together and now have a representative in the local government.

Also speaking at the conference was Debbie McMillan. A transgendered woman, McMillan was homeless at 14, became a sex worker, got addicted to drugs, and was incarcerated and sent to a male prison.

The specter of HIV first struck McMillan's mother, also a sex worker.

"While she was infected and living with my grandmother, she had one cup, one fork, one spoon, one plate," McMillan recalled. "After she used the bathroom, my grandmother followed behind her, bleaching everything."

Two months after her mother succumbed to disease related to HIV, McMillan herself received an HIV diagnosis.

"I was 20 years old and convinced I was going to die," she said.

For McMillan, support came in the form of a program called "Bridge Back," a program that has since shut down due to lack of funding. But McMillan is keeping up the fight, and she now works to help other transgender people at times of need.

"[T]ransgender persons, sex workers, and IV drug users, people like me, should be included and part of the solution," she said.

While the women who shared their stories emerged from very different backgrounds and circumstances, HIV is the common thread that connected all of their stories. But their talks also showed another commonality beginning to emerge -- that of hope.

Scruggs, who shared that she received her diagnosis while pregnant, said doctors at the time had advised her to terminate her pregnancy -- for both her and her unborn child's sake. They said her baby wouldn't survive three years, and that if she had an abortion, her life expectancy was five years.

It was a tough decision, she said. In the end, she "gave birth to the most handsomest young man in the world."

Scruggs' son recently turned 21 -- and he is HIV negative.

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