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Guest Voz: Miss Universe 2008 is on a mission to empower and educate Latinas against HIV/AIDS

LatinaLista — This week, Mexico City was the site of the XVII International Aids Conference. Among the 22,000 in attendance was Dayana Mendoza, the newly crowned Miss Universe 2008. Ms. Mendoza received her crown last month in Vietnam where the world learned that she hails from Venezuela and speaks English, Spanish and Italian.

However these days, Ms. Mendoza is speaking on behalf of the Latino Commission on AIDS (LCOA) to generate a higher awareness for HIV/AIDS prevention. Before the Mexico City convention, the LCOA released a report citing how Latinos comprise 22% of all U.S. cases of HIV/AIDS in 2006.
The LCOA was specifically waiting at the international conference for the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) officials to release their report on the estimation of HIV incidence in the United States to get a more precise picture of how badly infected is the Latino community.
Yet, because the CDC relied on outside sources to conduct their research who did not include Puerto Ricans from the island of Puerto Rico, the results proved to be a gross undercount of how many Latinos are truly infected with the disease.
According to the LCOA, the undercounting is significant because it has a “direct impact on the allocation of funding and resources brought to bear on the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the Hispanic community, as well as creating confusion regarding the success or failure of prevention efforts.”
The LCOA is working with the CDC to rectify the discrepancy brought about by omitting Puerto Ricans from the research.
In the meantime to help with their prevention efforts, the LCOA has created the “Madrina” program to elevate awareness of HIV/AIDS among the Latino community. This year’s madrina is Miss Universe 2008.

When I was crowned Miss Universe 2008, I committed to increasing HIV/AIDS awareness by focusing on women’s health and reproductive rights. As a 22-year-old woman, I am particularly invested in supporting young women and educating them about the growing threat of the AIDS epidemic.
This past month, I became a madrina to the Latino Commission on AIDS (LCOA) a community-based organization that conducts HIV prevention work and supports HIV organizations across the United States, in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Madrinas of the organization are women that commit themselves to promote HIV/AIDS prevention education.
In Venezuela and most of Latin America, Madrinas play an extended and important role; they become someone that the family can rely on for support. I hope that through my advocacy work on behalf of the Latino Commission on AIDS and HIV prevention, I will be able to reach a lot of young women, impart education and messages of hope.
Early this week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention raised its estimates for the number of people living with HIV/AIDS in the United States and reported that around 1.1 million Americans are currently living with the HIV, and more than 30% of them are under the age of 30.

Throughout all of Latin America the estimate of people living with HIV or AIDS is about 1.7 million. This problem is a global issue and I feel honored to be the public face of HIV awareness. Tragically, many of those living with HIV/AIDS don’t know their own status, which is why I advocate that everyone get tested, know their status and practice safer sex.
In the years since HIV came to light, we’ve come to understand more about why the rates of infection for women and girls have skyrocketed. The reasons have less to do with biology or behavior and more with the fundamental issues of power and control.
Because of our social status, many women and girls throughout the world lack the ability to determine many things about the course of their own lives. Limited access to economic resources and fear of violence force many women to yield control over their sexual relations to and with men.
This dynamic controls the lives of poor females in developing countries, but economic dependence also plagues monogamous and married women unable to maintain themselves and their children without help from their male partners who traditionally are the head of household.
When women cannot control their sexuality, they can often not reject their male partners, even if they suspect that their partners may be infected. Afraid of a violent reaction or abandonment and economic ruin, they cannot force, or sometimes even ask, their male partners to practice safer sex.
Without a prevention method they can control, millions of women face the threat of HIV infection every day, both throughout the developing world and in nations like the United States. Too often, the needs and vulnerabilities of women of all ages is overlooked by HIV prevention programs that don’t take the question of power and control into consideration.
Too often safer sex education promotes the use of condoms but sidesteps entirely the question of who controls the decision to use condoms. Because so many standard prevention approaches fail to reach them, women remain far less educated about HIV and it has deadly consequences.
Meaningful prevention programming for young women requires a different kind of approach, one that has, at its heart, the concept of empowerment that creates opportunities to help women gain control over their economic, social and sexual lives.
Empowering young women is a primary goal for me this year. For HIV prevention, empowerment takes the forms of economic opportunity to lessen women’s dependence, social and political advancement to give women a voice, and HIV prevention methods that women can control.
That is why I support knowing your status. It is so easy to get tested for HIV, especially in more developed countries. In some cases you can even get your results back in about twenty minutes and at no cost. If you know you are negative you can begin to do everything in your power to stay negative and safe from HIV. If you find out you are positive, you can begin to seek medical care and maintain a healthy lifestyle.
It is very important that people understand that HIV is a manageable disease regardless if you are male or female. Not knowing your status, and not accessing care can shorten a person’s life by many years. Years that could be spent in school, with friends, falling in love, pursuing a career and being with family.
I believe we can succeed in giving women a voice against HIV/AIDS. But we must remember to reach them with education developed specifically for them and together we must develop programming that empowers women economically and politically.
As women, we must also remember that we must take care of ourselves and each other. When possible we need to advocate for our own and other women’s rights. HIV can be prevented…help me spread that message.

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  • laura
    August 9, 2008 at 8:17 am

    Dayana Mendoza speaks a truth that can save many women’s – and men’s – lives. It is wonderful she is using her visibility as Miss Universe to convey the message that all of us are vulnerable to HIV, that all of us should be tested, that HIV can be treated successfully, and that women need to be economically independent and educated to protect ourselves, our children, and ultimately our men from this infection.
    I am happy that Dayana is beautiful not only on the surface, but also in her spirit.

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