Sunday, Dec. 1, was World AIDS Day. To debrief, I followed up with Jordan Namerow, who lives in Roslindale and is the director of public engagement and strategic content at American Jewish World Service (AJWS), an international human rights organization inspired by the Jewish commitment to justice.
What have you been thinking about on World AIDS Day this year?
I recently returned from Nicaragua, where I met with a transgender rights organization called the Association for Transgender Nicaraguans (ANIT) that AJWS supports. ANIT primarily advocates for the rights of transwomen—many of whom are HIV-positive and have faced relentless discrimination and bigotry from their families, schools, employers, health care providers and religious communities.
I met one transwoman named Dayanara who came out when she was a teenager. She was ostracized by her family and, like many transwomen, became a sex worker to support herself financially. After years on the street, she developed a drug and alcohol addiction and ended up in prison, where she was raped repeatedly. When Dayanara got out of prison, she learned about ANIT and connected with the organization’s leaders, who encouraged her to get tested for HIV. Dayanara tested positive and made a commitment to turn her life around.
Now, at 29, she’s getting her high school degree and is one of ANIT’s community leaders. Together with other activists, she is working to increase access to justice for trans people who have been victims of violence. She also conducts sensitization trainings with health providers and police officers. Once a month, she joins with other ANIT leaders to distribute condoms to sex workers on the street at night.
While Dayanara’s family has grown to accept her, they still refer to her as “he” and do not know that she is HIV-positive.
So I’ve been thinking a lot about the stigma, shame and hiding that millions of HIV-positive people experience every day. And I’ve been reflecting on the fact that the fight against HIV and AIDS is one piece of a much larger struggle to secure human rights and bodily integrity for people all over the globe.
How is the work of AJWS different from local HIV and AIDS work?
In the United States, HIV has been perceived as a virus that affects gay men. In the developing world, HIV is primarily understood as a heterosexual problem, and women and girls are the most at risk. In countries like Kenya, Guatemala or India, for example, doing HIV-related work is often about educating women and girls about their rights and their dignity, and positioning girls’ sexual health and sexual rights at the center of a global HIV-prevention strategy. It’s about making sure that girls are equipped with knowledge to make their own choices about their bodies, their lives and their futures.
For example, AJWS supports an organization called Fortress of Hope Africa (FOHA), in the Dandora slum community of Nairobi, Kenya. FOHA offers girl-led programming with activities designed by and for girls—a model that creates a multiplier effect in which girls empower other girls. Felistah Mbithe, FOHA’s founder, whom I met at the 2012 International AIDS Conference, started the program in 2005 as an informal safe space for girls to “talk about girl stuff,” including their risk for HIV infection. Before FOHA was founded, safe spaces for girls to learn and share were almost nonexistent in Dandora. Most youth programs were dominated by boys. Many parents didn’t approve of their daughters receiving information about their sexual health. Girls often lacked the resources to finish school, so they became isolated. Low self-esteem was also an impediment to girls’ leadership. Through FOHA, girls discuss their challenges and brainstorm the solutions that work for them. For example, one girl-led project is the Groundbreakers, an educational dance group that generates money and raises awareness about sexual and reproductive health through its performances. Read more about other projects here.
What’s Jewish, to you, about doing this work?
For me, personally, there are two core reasons why this work feels Jewish:
1) At the core of Jewish theology is the notion that every person is of equal value and is created with essential dignity. Some Jews frame this idea as each person being created “in the image of God”—b’tzelem elohim. Regardless of one’s sexual orientation, gender identity or HIV status, every person deserves the realization of their fundamental human rights: the right to health, safety and autonomy.
2) As a queer Jew, I’ve had my own experiences of isolation and bias. These experiences have heightened my sensitivity to marginality and oppression, and have instilled a sense of responsibility to act. HIV-positive people in both the developed and the developing world are often forced to hide or are rendered invisible in their own communities. I am fortunate to have come out as queer in a time of increased civil rights, visibility and inclusion of LGBTQ people in American society and in the Jewish community. Countless queer and Jewish activists who came before me fought for the rights and dignity that I have today. So I want to play my own small part in advancing justice in parts of the world where it is sorely needed.
*In the photo above, members of ANIT, an AJWS grantee, distribute condoms to sex workers at night. Photo by Evan Abramson/AJWS.