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New York State of Denial: HIV & Women of Color in NYC - Natl Women & Girls HIV Awareness Day
  March 10 2009
Today, National Women and Girls HIV/AIDS Awareness Day, the Women's HIV Collaborative of New York released Women Living with HIV and AIDS in NYC, a geographical analysis and comprehensive examination of the epidemic as it affects women in the five boroughs.
Using statistical data compiled by government agencies, the report visually depicts by ZIP code a clear reality: women of color living in low-income areas are most at risk for HIV/AIDS infection, due in part to socio-economic factors affecting their communities, like high rates of incarceration and low rates of high school graduation, as well as lack of access to reproductive health care and information about risk reduction.
Young women of color are disproportionately affected by HIV/AIDS; black and Latina women ages 13-24 account for 75% of all new infections nationwide. Not surprisingly, the "hot spots" with the highest HIV/AIDS infection rates in the city also have the highest rates of sexually transmitted infections (STI's) and unplanned pregnancies.
The report recommends mandatory comprehensive sexuality education in New York's public classrooms to slow the epidemic's devastating effects on the next generation. It calls on local and state leaders to take the lead in providing young people the information to make informed, responsible decisions about sex. Unfortunately, that's an area in which New York politicos have proved, in all senses, quite deficient.
New Yorkers might be surprised to learn their state, generally a leader in reproductive health policy, doesn't actually mandate comprehensive sex education in the schools. On the contrary, New York has ranked at the top of the list, with Texas and Florida, of states that receive the most money for abstinence-only-until-marriage programs, accepting more than 13 million federal dollars in 2007 earmarked solely for lessons in "just say no" that often contain factual inaccuracies about condoms and contraception, generalizations about sexuality that are based on biases about gender and sexual orientation, and religious overtones.
Since New York has no statewide standards for sex education beyond minimal instruction in HIV/AIDS prevention, other information young people receive about sex often varies by classroom and teacher. In one upstate high school, one health teacher brings in an educator from Planned Parenthood to cover STI's and condoms while the other health teacher invites a speaker from a religiously affiliated abstinence-only organization to talk about the risks of sexual activity. Even New York City public schools have taken up sexless sex ed, banning condom demonstrations in the classroom at every grade level, for any reason.
Since 2001, advocates and young people have been sounding the alarm about the dismal state of sex education in New York schools. "Part of the battle is getting New Yorkers to believe this could really happen here," says Galen Sherwin, director of NYCLU's Reproductive Rights Project."Parents are shocked to find out their children may not be learning what they think they should be about sex." When polled, 88% of New Yorkers believe students should receive information about contraception and the prevention of STI's.
Lawmakers have been slow to respond. The Healthy Teens Act, a bill that creates a competitive grant program, administered by the Department of Health, for schools and communities to teach sexuality education, was first introduced in 2002 and has passed the Assembly every year since, but died in the hostile political environment of the state Senate. However, the November elections gave New York a pro-choice majority in the upper chamber for the first time in forty years, clearing the way for the bill to pass before another generation is lost to ignorance and misinformation.
Well, almost.
Facing a $15.4 billion budget shortfall, Governor David Paterson has vowed to veto legislation that includes new funding components and he's been keeping his promise. If the Healthy Teens Act does pass this session, it will likely die on Paterson's desk, although a strong argument could be made that every dollar spent on comprehensive sex education is one of the few good investments these days, as reducing the $421 million the state spends per year on costs associated with teen pregnancy could only be described as a financial win.
The health of New York's young people, then, likely rests with President Obama, who could for the first time in history direct federal funds toward comprehensive sex education programs like those specified in the Healthy Teens Act. New York's congressional delegation must underscore their constituents' support for such a move, and the potential benefits that young people, not just in New York but nationwide, could reap from receiving unbiased, comprehensive sexuality education for the first time.
During the campaign, then-candidate Obama told his young supporters, "it's the right thing to do, to provide age-appropriate sex education, science-based sex education in the schools." Obama's 2010 budget overview includes a commitment to "fund [sexuality education] models that stress the importance of abstinence while providing medically accurate and age-appropriate information to youth who have become sexually active." When the budget comes out, with numbers attached, later this month, we'll see if as President he's good for his word
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