Helping Latinas in San Diego Prevent HIV

By Rob Banaszak on March 23, 2012 in GENERATIONS

by Veronica Tovar,  MPA
HIV Research and Education
Chicano Federation

For the past five years, Chicano Federation has been conducting the National HIV Behavioral Surveillance (NHBS) in San Diego. NHBS is a Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) program that interviews populations at risk for HIV to track behavioral trends in twenty-one cities in the U.S. with the highest HIV prevalence.

During counseling and testing sessions through this project, Chicano Federation found that many Latinas had never been tested for HIV.  Furthermore, many shared that their male partners were engaged in extramarital affairs, but continued to have unprotected intercourse.  Quite a few others shared that they did not know whether their partner was monogamous.  Both Latinos and Latinas, usually the older, lower-economic status couples, revealed not knowing how HIV is transmitted or how to use a condom.

According to the CDC, Latinas represent nearly one quarter (24%) of new HIV infections in the U.S. (CDC, 2010).  When compared to the United States, California and San Diego County had the largest proportion of Hispanic HIV cases (Epidemiology Report, 2010). In 2003-2007, the most common mode of HIV transmission in females was heterosexual contact (75% of all cases). Additionally, according to the CDC, high HIV risk in heterosexuals is linked to regions of high poverty and high STI rates.

In response to these overwhelming findings, with the financial and technical support of AIDS United and Johnson & Johnson, Chicano Federation created the De Mujer a Mujer curriculum (From Woman to Woman).  This unique health curriculum specifically aimed at educating traditional, mono-lingual, migrant Latinas living in one of five high-risk zip codes in San Diego, structured to cover a wide spectrum of health issues with the end goal being to de-stigmatize HIV and empower women to take control of their sexual relationships, get tested for HIV, and start making better decisions related to their own overall health and their children’s health.

AIDS United and Johnson & Johnson provided the opportunity to create an innovative program by allowing a formative and pilot phase prior to implementation.  Staff found that in order to address HIV, some basic needs and issues must first be acknowledged.  The curriculum was designed to address the overall encompassing needs of women, and gain trust and confidence before indulging in the taboo subjects of sex, HIV, and communicating with partners and children. The model consists of seven sessions, as follows: 1.Information/Introduction, 2. Gender empowerment, 3. Healthy relationships, 4. Reproductive anatomy, 5. HIV/STI 101, 6. Communication, and 7. Graduation. The three main objectives are 1. Increase self-efficacy and a personal sense of empowerment 2. Improve inter-personal communication skills, and 3. Improve safe sex practices through sexual health knowledge.

In 12 months Chicano Federation has held 63 weekly sessions for 128 women.  Of those 128 Latinas who participated, 112 graduated with 88% having attended all of the seven weekly sessions.  The comparisons of pre- and post- evaluations show statistically significant, positive improvements in all three areas.  More Latinas are getting tested for HIV and using condoms as a result of this intervention. But perhaps the most interesting results come from personal testaments to the impact that this program has had on the individuals.  Many participants have shared stories of how their participation in De Mujer a Mujer has acted as a catalyst for healthier choices in their lives.  The participants start showing positive improvements in their appearances, they share stories of terminating unhealthy relationships, have fun explaining the creative ways they have introduced condoms in their sex lives, and their experiences of communicating about safe sex with their children, to name a few.  The letter below from a De Mujer a Mujer participant explains both the impact and the continued need for this intervention in our community.

“I want to thank the instructors in the De Mujer a Mujer for giving me the opportunity to attend their class…The exercises we did in class were fun and smartly put together and I found myself laughing but at the same time really thinking about the impact it could make in my everyday life.  I was surprised that the Latinas in our community are still not informed about HIV and the myths they still hear.  I believe our culture has a lot to do with it.  I hope De Mujer a Mujer continues and more Latinas are aware of it because it is greatly needed in the Latina community.  I’m definitely telling every Latina in the community I come across about De Mujer a Mujer.” –Adriana Lopez

Two years ago, Chicano Federation went through a change in leadership, something that had not happened in 20 years.  This change, along with the support from AIDS United, has allowed Chicano Federation to invest in innovative projects like De Mujer a Mujer; it has provided the opportunity to bridge the gap between HIV research and the social services it provides to the community.  The creation of the program, not only brought new energy to the organization, but also to the community at large.  Stakeholders and media alike welcome the opportunity to learn more about De Mujer a Mujer, despite the difficult subject, and they are eager to help make this program succeed.  Chicano Federation and this program are being viewed as a model to delivering mission driven services in a relevant and effective way. Chicano Federation now has social services for HIV prevention and has demonstrated success implementing an innovative project.  Thank you AIDS United and Johnson & Johnson for this wonderful journey!

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