AIDS Healthcare Foundation is not traditionally thought of as a women’s health organization, but the truth is that much of what we do is centered around providing care, advocacy, and support for women worldwide — including those who are not infected or at risk of AIDS or HIV. This week, we heard from some of the women leading two key affinity groups at AHF relating to serving women: Spark and Girls Act.
Serving Women at AHF
Turning the spotlight on how AHF provides care and advocacy for women
CORE TOPICS + DETAILS:
[2:42] - About Girls Act
A response to changing trends
Girls Act was launched in 2006 in response to higher rates of new HIV infections amongst young women and girls. In Africa, the statistics have risen even higher.
Girls Act creates opportunities for girls to live healthier lives and to be able to thrive in their environments. It doesn’t only focus on girls living with HIV, but in fact is about prevention and ensuring everyone has the tools and support they need to stay healthy, reduce unplanned pregnancies, stay in school, or stay in care if they are infected.
[5:48] - About Spark
Another women-centric AHF affinity group
Spark is an affinity group of AHF launched when people within the organization determined their should be a group dedicated to assisting women with overall health and wellbeing — all women and girls, all ages, everywhere.
Key goals of Spark include providing access, resources, and knowledge that’s relevant to the current climate: voting power, menstrual poverty, equity and equality, and personal initiatives launched by Spark members.
[9:33] - The Four Pillars of Girls Act
A foundation to build from when serving girls globally
The four pillars of the girls act are knowledge, mentorship & scholarship, agency, and psychosocial support.
Knowledge relates to skills building and information, reducing power imbalances due to girls simply not having access to education or financial independence.
Mentorship provides support and role modeling so that girls can empower each other, as well as scholarship to help bring education to more girls worldwide.
Agency relates to empowering girls to use their own voices and engage decision makers themselves through leadership, communication, and advocacy training.
Finally, psychosocial support provides strength for girls living with HIV or trying to thrive in challenging circumstances.
[17:18] - The Importance of Menstrual Health and Equality
One of Spark’s central missions explained
One in ten girls in sub-Saharan Africa miss as much as 20% of their school year due to their periods. In addition to giving out sanitary pads so that girls can function better with less disruption while on their periods, Spark is teaching girls how to speak about their body, speak with their peers and family, and end the stigma — including among boys in school — so they and everyone around them can see their periods as natural and normal.
[24:25] - Get Involved with Spark and Girls Act
How you can contribute
The quickest way to get involved and informed on Spark’s mission is to follow them on Instagram (@sparkthe_convo) or send a DM. You can also visit the Spark website at www.sparkunited.org, sign up for a newsletter, and fill out a brief contact form. You’ll usually be contacted within 24 hours about how you can get involved.
To get involved with Girls Act, either message the Instagram (@girlsactinternational) or connect with the country program coordinator or program manager for Girl’s Act.
ABOUT AFTER HOURS:
AIDS Healthcare Foundation is the world’s largest HIV/AIDS service organization, operating in 45 countries globally. The mission? Providing cutting-edge medicine and advocacy for everyone, regardless of ability to pay.
The After Hours podcast is an official podcast of AIDS Healthcare Foundation, in which host Lauren Hogan is joined by experts in a range of fields to educate, inform, and inspire listeners on topics that go far beyond medical information to cover leadership, creativity, and success.
Learn more at: https://www.aidshealth.org
ABOUT THE HOST:
Lauren Hogan is the Associate Director of Communications for AIDS Healthcare Foundation, and has been working in a series of roles with the Foundation since 2016. She’s passionate about increasing the public visibility of AIDS, the Foundation's critical work, and how everyday people can help join the fight to make cutting-edge medicine, treatment, and support available for anyone who needs it.
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Get unfiltered lessons from our leaders at AHF as we uncover real raw stories of where we came from and where we are going. Join us for an unscripted look at the connections our senior leadership have to our mission, core values and hot initiatives. AHF is the world's largest HIV/AIDS service organization operating in 45 countries, globally, 16 states, domestically; including DC and Puerto Rico. Our mission is to provide cutting-edge medicine and advocacy regardless of ability to pay.
Hello and welcome to The After Hours Podcast. I'm your host, Lauren Hogan, serving as your liaison to take you through this journey to learn more about AIDS Healthcare Foundation. Before we start the show, please make sure to remember to check out the show notes so you can follow along. Now, let's get started.
Hello, everyone. Welcome back to another episode of The After Hours Podcast. As always, I'm your host, Lauren Hogan. Today we have a very special episode, because we are talking about women. Okay. I'm excited. We have an amazing group of speakers here today. We're going to get into all things that AHF does to support women. First and foremost, I want to introduce our lovely speakers today. Cyan, I'll start with you. Just tell us who you are and what your role is here at AHF.
Hi, everyone. I'm Cyan Cardy. I'm the Associate Director for Global Advocacy Operations. I've been with AHF for about five years now.
Hello, everyone. My name is SandyAnn Monroe. I'm the Associate Director of HR for the Southern Bureau. I've been with AHF for seven years. When I'm not the Associate Director of HR for the Southern Bureau, I'm the National President of Spark United.
Hi. I hope everyone's doing amazing. My name is Cassandra Esperat. I'm an SRT Pharmacist and I've been with AHF for about four years now. I am also part of Spark United, I'm actually the Director of Advocacy.
Hello, everyone. My name is Kemi [inaudible 00:02:05]. I work with the AIDS Healthcare Foundation as the Director for Advocacy, Policy and Marketing for the Africa Bureau. I'm also the coordinator of Girls Act for the Africa Bureau. I'm proud to say that I'm also one of the co-initiators of Girls Act.
Thank you guys all for being with us today. You guys mentioned what your respective roles are, so we're going to dive deeper into that. Cyan and Kemi, I want to go to you guys first. Tell us a little bit about Girls Act, how it got started and kind of what its purpose is.
I'll throw that to Kemi as one of the founding co-mothers of the program.
All right. Thank you very much.
Girls Act started in 2016. Basically it was in response to the higher rate of new HIV infections that we see amongst young women and girls. For Africa, the statistics are higher and they've been higher since then. We've seen some decline, but for example, we have as much as 4,000 new infections every week when it comes to HIV. In 2015 we had done what we called She's Her Ally, which was an initiative from the Global Advocacy Program. At that time the Africa Bureau was also having conversations with respect to the number of new infections we were seeing with young women and girls. The bureau chief, Dr. Penny, actually had a meeting with four of us, the other two who have left AHF now. Interestingly, we're all women. She said, "We're seeing such new high, new numbers of HIV infection. This is not right. We have to do something as an organization to address that."
One of the first things we did was to commission a research, a focus group discussion in Kenya, Uganda, Nigeria, and South Africa. The reason was we wanted to find out, beyond what we see in the numbers, what were the drivers of these new infections amongst young women and girls as a way to inform the programmatic direction that we were going to take. When the feedback or the results from the focus group came, we realized that it wasn't just about the new infection rates, it was also issues around gender-based violence. It was issues around lack of access to education for girls, issues around poverty, and some harmful practices as well, gender inequalities. Those are some of the things that were driving the infection rates.
That led us to start Girls Act. Girls Act basically looks at creating opportunities for girls to live healthier lives and for girls to be able to thrive. It doesn't only focus on young women and girls living with HIV, in fact, the primary objective of Girls Act is to prevent new HIV infections amongst young women and girls age 10 to 24. Because we also know that we do have girls who are within that age bracket who are HIV positive, Girls Act also extends beyond prevention to also ensure that girls who are positive receive all the tools and support they need to stay in care.
Just to add to that too, we're helping the young women and girls also reduce unplanned pregnancies and keep them in school. Kemi had kind of started the program in the Africa Bureau, with I think four countries and then with Haiti and now we're in 34 plus countries with some new countries being onboarded for 2023. That's really exciting. We're looking forward to all the fun updates that are coming from them as well.
Amazing, amazing work. SandyAnn and Cassandra, I want to turn it over to you guys. Tell us a little bit about Spark, how it got started and ultimately what purpose does it serve?
Spark is a affinity group of AHF. It got started when someone in the organization thought that there needed to be an affinity group dedicated to women and AHS female client base as well. At the planning point, I stepped in, I helped with planning. I didn't think, at the time, that I would be leading Spark, I just thought I was helping to bring an idea together. Fast forward three to four years now, we've been trucking through the affinity world of AHF and trying to get our name out there to as many women as possible.
We work to assist us as much with nurturing the overall health and wellbeing of women and girls, everywhere, of all ages. We try to tackle that through providing access, resources and knowledge that's relevant. Right now, relevant stuff would be voting power, menstrual poverty, equity and equality and honestly anything after that those are relevant in society but also what's relevant for a woman personally. We also take personal initiatives and things that's going on in our society today.
Cassandra, anything you want to add?
Yeah. Sure. Just to add to that, so I remember in 2018 when I started at AHF, just a few months in, I had a patient and she just found out she was diagnosed. She contracted it from her husband. She was Caribbean. She was asking me how does she talk to her partner about it? She's like, "Do you guys have any organizations?" Just as I was walking out, I ran into SandyAnn and I was like "SandyAnn, do we have anything like this?" She had happened to just take over Spark and I thought there was a great opportunity to join this organization that empowers women.
There's other programs that we do, such as Support the period Poverty initiative. What that means is that there's a lot of girls around the United States, even in the county that we work in, Brown County and Florida, that don't go to school when they have their periods. If you can just supply them with a year's supply of pads or tampons that could change the trajectory of their life and make sure that they stay in school and get an education. We do some of those initiatives and we do little toiletry bags to just help girls and women. That's just a start to make sure they have their confidence so they can feel empowered as they go into society and try to thrive.
I want to dive more into the program. You guys kind of touched on it for instance with the period poverty that you just talked about. Cyan and Kemi, can you guys dive deeper into what your programs consist of and all of the different things honestly that are needed within these programs to make sure that we're serving girls in your respective areas?
I can start and I'll throw it back to Kemi. One of the main program initiatives is, like we mentioned, HIV and STI screening and treatment, menstrual health management and hygiene, school support. Anything like giving uniforms, books, school fees to the girls, even transportation fees so they can either get to school or get to the clinic to get their medication. Then comprehensive sexual education, which is something that Kemi is championing, especially from the African Bureau and most recently in our International Day Of The Girl Child. Kemi, a little bit more about that.
Okay. I would say for the Africa Bureau, when it comes to Girls Act, we're working with four main pillars because those four pillars help us to crystallize the different areas that we target. One of it is knowledge, skills building, information. Under that some of the things we do for the girls is income generating activities, because we do realize the power imbalance that exists between men and women and even very prevalent on the continent in Africa. Part of it is usually around issues of financial reliance or financial independence. We do have income generating activities where girls learn different, whether it's a apprenticeship or social enterprise that they can use to generate resources. That cuts across from learning to make hair or to tailor an outfit or even just things around makeup and cosmetology, anything that can help them generate resources, that comes under that.
Then mentorship as well. We understand the power of mentorship, role modeling and having women in the community and the society that the girls can look up to inspire them towards greatness. We do have mentorship programs. We have peer-to-peer support and peer-to-peer leadership training where girls empower each other, they go into communities, they talk to girls.
Under that as well, we look at the second part which is reducing HIV infection and STIs, like Cyan talked about. That's where we have the scholarship program. Girls get opportunities to receive funding through the Girls Act to go back to school. They're able to go back to school, continue education. For some girls it's just a provision of scholastic materials, that's what they're lacking, so we meet that need. For some it's menstrual health, sanitary pads. Girls Act actually does donate sanitary pads, not only to Girls Act members but even the communities that Girls Act exists in.
We have another bit, which is empowering girls to champion their own agency, because we understand the power of agency for girls to be able to use their own voices and also engage decision makers. Some of what we do is training girls on leadership, training them on communication, training them on advocacy, but beyond that is creating opportunities for girls to meet with decision makers at different levels. We've had Girls Act members who have had interface with parliamentarians to champion their causes and talk about why they need free sanitary pads or why they need comprehensive sexuality education or why they need access to sexual productive health or need to address stigma now for girls who are positive.
Then the last bit is the psychosocial support. Remember I talked about the fact that some Girls Act members, in fact a lot of Girls Act members, are living with HIV. There's always that need to keep the psychosocial support going for girls. That's also another part of the program that we support girls in. Around that you have the peer-to-peer support a lot, but then other support that girls need. In some cases where we have like GBV cases, girls are able to be supported if they do need access to maybe legal redress or if they need access to post-exposure prophylaxis or you just need support to get through. We're able to partner with organizations that that is their wheelhouse to provide that support to girls.
Beyond that, it's also creating opportunities for girls to access things like cervical cancer screening, focus on ending teenage pregnancies as well as engaging men and boys. In as much as Girls Act is focused on girls, we also are mindful and we recognize the fact that they come from communities that also have boys and men and then structures that are patriarchal in nature that also need to be changed. Part of what we do is to also involve boys and men in conversations around menstrual health, GBV. There's usually a lot of community dialogues, there's usually a lot of visiting schools to educate schools and just supporting girls and boys as well to get the needed services. Those are some of the programs that girls access.
Kemi, can you just tell us, because our listeners may not know what is GBV? What is that acronym just they're aware.
Okay, sorry. GBV is the acronym for gender-based violence. In our own case, we'll look at things like rape, which is usually prevalent, things like child marriage or female genital mutilation which are all things that also increases girls' risk to HIV. They're prevalent in a number of our countries on the continent. Yeah.
Thank you. SandyAnn and Cassandra, I want to just turn it over to you to take a deeper dive into some of the programs and initiatives that Spark has. Then I want to kind of tie something else together. Go ahead.
Thank you so much. Spark, we're working towards a lot of different initiative. Our most recent project is we're going to participate with the Department of Health to have a gala that honors the black and brown people in the community doing the work. We're going to have a gala that's in partnership with them to just make sure that the unsung heroes ... There's a lot of people that's doing the work that doesn't get the honor, so we're going to work towards that. Also, our goal is to build collaborations in the community so that we can expand the opportunities we have to influence the people in the community, because we want to make sure that our girls understand the resources that we offer at AHF in order for them to prevent STIs and HIV and also empower them to develop as leaders.
SandyAnn, anything you want to add?
I'd just like us to also add that while we're doing this work we realize that resources, education and just knowing helps to do so much to empower a woman. That's what we show up with, off the bat; the basic resources, access to knowledge, always changing our spaces where we're teaching something, very similar to what Kemi mentioned. We're teaching something. You're leaving knowing something valuable to add to your life, whether that's knowing how to budget, planning a basic budget based on what you have. We're very education, knowledge, resource based. We think that's what really helps to drive us and create a name out in the community for us.
Go ahead, Cassandra.
Also to add, we're in a climate where abortion rights is being challenged in the political climate. We're also really letting people know in the community that we are here and we will offer Plan B for you at no cost. This is an initiative that AHF did take on, which I think that at Spark that we're in a position to be able to promote that and to make sure that people who need access get access.
My next thing that I want to kind of talk to you guys about, because there's a lot of similarities in this one area that you guys have for your programming and that's around menstrual health. Through Girls Act, you guys are doing period education, you guys are providing pads to so many women because some of these girls are actually not able to attend school and for a myriad of other reasons just because they're getting a menstrual cycle. Then, Spark on you guys' end, you're creating hygiene kits and different things like that as well. In your respective purviews, why do you guys think that menstrual health and equality is so important? Cyan, I'll start with you.
Sure. One of the biggest things that we've talked about is the lack of access to sanitary pads is keeping girls out of school. I was looking at some statistics and one in 10 girls in sub-Saharan Africa miss a school due to their period. That's 20% of the school year. That's a significant amount of time that they're out of school. In addition to giving out sanitary pads, we're teaching the girls how to learn about their body, learning how to speak with their peers, their family, the stigma, talking with the young boys in their classroom so they don't tease them and make them feel like they can't come to school.
In a lot of countries we're seeing that girls when they start their period or when they have their period, they're ostracized from their community. It's not that they just don't go to school, they might have to go into a hut, and I'm serious about this, in their community and be in solitary confinement just because they're on their period. This is something that is so natural. It's kind of addressing the patriarchy, learning how to speak with the community and have the girls advocate for themselves and say, "This is not right. This is a normal something that's happening to my body, I shouldn't be stigmatized for it." It's not just the in-kind kind of donations aspect to it.
Achieving menstrual health is fundamental to equality, rights, dignity. It's basically very similar to what Cyan was saying, to everyone who goes through menstruating. These days it's not just people that appear to be women. There's some persons in the transgender community that may also go through this. In the US we found that 23% of students in the US have struggled to afford menstrual products. 51% of women or girls in the US have worn menstrual products for longer than recommended. 38% of women just can't afford it due to financial and just lack of access in their areas. For generations of girls and women, we find that it's important because it happens. It's something that all women go through or all persons that has had a female part of them. We want to make it a little bit easier, a little bit more social normal. We just believe that it should be accessible. It just should be accessible.
Just know that women get ostracized from activities such as eating certain foods and socializing, they kind of have to be quarantined literally when they have their period at times in other parts of the world. It's definitely important that this become a priority, globally, to help women gain access. I believe that providing it at the schools, finding a way to assist the schools in providing it would be a great opportunity. Just know that one out of five girls around the world, they don't go to school because they're on their period and they have no access to the period products.
Last but not least, Kemi.
Yeah. I just wanted to paint more around the picture with equality and inequality when it comes to menstrual health. I'm just going to paint it directly with schooling because the reason for that is, for example, in Africa where I come from, you have more girls who are out of school than boys. You also have a situation where in certain [inaudible 00:21:19], there's a preference for boys' education over girls' education. When girls don't have access to menstrual health products, it makes it a lot easier for parents to do the trade-off. Rather than commit resources in the family to buy sanitary pads for girls to go to school, parents would make an easier choice of keeping them out of school. What follows after that is perhaps the girl getting off married.
We've had cases where girls, the moment they started their period, that was the end of schooling for them ever. There wasn't any conversation around schooling, because it was easier for parents to say, "You know what, I'd rather send your brother to school than send you to school, because either way you're going to get married off."
Now, the ripple effect of that is when girls are shut out of school, then of course you shut out the opportunity for them to have access to any kind of information or education that empowers them, whether it's education around their health, whether it's education around bodily autonomy, whether it's education around just basic economics of life. What happens with that is, and we see that, is there is the disparity in not just literacy rates but also disparity in earning power. Because when girls are not able to go to school, what happens automatically? They're not able to fend for themselves. They're not able to be independent in terms of finance. They do not have access even to the labor force at all because they do not have the education, which is the foundation.
That's why menstrual health, for a very long time, people were not paying attention to it until we started connecting the dots. The dots connect, not just to gender equality, but even with HIV because we've seen, and there are studies from Africa in a number of countries to show that when girls don't have access to sanitary pads, it pushes them to transgenerational sex or transactional sex. In those transactional sex or transgenerational sex, they do not have the negotiating power to even negotiate for condom use, because at that moment they are the mercy of the men who they're asking resources for to buy sanitary pads. That, in itself, is where we started to see the link between lack of access to sanitary pads to HIV infection rates or teenage pregnancy rates as well.
Again, that just contributes to the vicious cycle of shutting girls out farther and further away from education or any form of empowerment that allows them to be self-reliant or allows them to be financially literate or allows them to even contribute to building their communities and contributing resources to the communities or contributing to building their families. They're not able to do that because of just the lack of access to sanitary pads. Giving girls access to sanitary pads, to a large extent, guarantees education and guarantees the benefits that education brings, whether it's for their health, whether it's for their economic or social economic wellbeing, whether it's for just their dignity and their ability to also lead in their communities.
We are at time, unfortunately. I have one last question for you all, and that is, with your respective programs, how can people get involved? SandyAnn and Cassandra, I'll start with you guys. You can tell us how folks can get involved with Spark.
There's a few ways to get involved. The easiest, quickest way would be to either follow us on Instagram and just send us a direct message or visit our website. It's www.sparkunited.org. There, you can sign up for one of our newsletters and also fill out a very brief form. It's just getting basic information. Our normal response time is about 24 hours. We'll give you a call with either that day or the next day to just chat about who we are, what we do, and find out some things that you're interested in and what your why is. Sparkunited.org or follow us on Instagram @sparkthe_convo
Kemi and Cyan, how can we get involved with Girls Act?
From a kind of an LA based, HQ level, I think the best thing to do is, like SandyAnn said, share our stories from Instagram, share our e-blast. That's the best thing you can do. Then, locally, if you're visiting or if you have family or friends on the ground, is to connect with the country program manager and the country coordinators for Girls Act. Kemi's our lead for the Africa Bureau so she can hook you up if you want to get involved.
Just to add to what Cyan said, because that's also a conversation that the bureaus are having now with the global advocacy team and that is to create opportunities where girls can connect, even with a AHS staffers who are in different parts of the world. That's something that we've been talking about, just creating opportunities for girls to either write or even ... If there's staff who are interested, you could also just write and to want to connect with the girls. I do know that that's something that a lot of them are always very happy to receive when they hear from others, about how they feel inspired by the work that the Girls Act is doing. Those are some other ways.
You could also donate as well. Right now we're having more girls who need support to go back to school. We're having more girls who need support with sanitary pads. If you feel that this is something that you feel strongly about, you could also donate to help sponsor a girl to go back to school.
Well, thank you guys so much. This has been a fantastic episode. I really just want to say amazing, amazing work. Thank you for all that you do. We look forward to seeing all of the work that you'll continue to do in the future. As always, this was an amazing episode. We'll see you guys next time.
Thank you so much for joining us. If you enjoyed this episode and you'd like to help support the show, please subscribe, share it with your friends, like, post about it on social media or leave a rating and review. Follow us on Instagram @afterhours. See you next time.