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AIDS: Local doctor looks at women and AIDS
by Stephanie Taylor
2011-06-29

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Dr. Celeste Watkins-Hayes, associate professor in the departments of African American Studies and Sociology at Northwestern University in Evanston, is conducting a study called Health, Hardship & Renewal (HHR): A Research Study of the Economics Strategies of Women Living with HIV/AIDS. This project is funded by the National Science Foundation and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

"My research agenda focuses on inequality, public policy and organizations," Dr. Watkins-Hayes said. "The HHR Study is trying to understand how people living with HIV/AIDS make ends meet and how the labor market, national, state, and local policies, and community institutions either challenge or support their abilities to make ends meet."

"I am trying to examine whether and how people gain access to income such as social security, wages from formal jobs or money from informal jobs. Understanding how people gain or are denied access to government assistance, the formal labor market or the informal economy will help us to understand the relationship between economic survival and health maintenance," she said.

According to www.hhrstrategies.org, the study's website, HIV-positive women who were involved in the interviews were asked questions that will help us understand:

-- How do women living with HIV/AIDS locate and use resources for help?

-- How do they cope with the financial obstacles that might come to them?

-- How do they make ends meet and take care of their families?

-- How do they take care of their health while handling their bills?

Dr. Watkins-Hayes hopes to accomplish many things with this study. A primary goal is to inform public policy makers, program service providers and the public about specific economic needs of people living with HIV. The study will also capture what it means for people living with HIV to financially make a way while also managing the disease. Dr. Watkins-Hayes hopes to highlight how addressing basic financial needs such as healthcare, housing, employment and child care needs is the next frontier in our response to the AIDS crisis. "Once those basic needs are met, people will better be able to manage their health and live longer despite living with HIV," said Dr. Watkins-Hayes.

The research consists of about 100 face-to-face interviews with women of different ethnic, racial and socioeconomic backgrounds in the Chicago area ranging in ages from 18 to 65. "We wanted to gather in-depth interview data from as many women as possible and from diverse racial and economic backgrounds," she said.

About one-third of women in the study are Black, one-third are Hispanic and one-third are white. Although they have a large amount of low-income women, the HHR Study also has a number of a working-class and middle-class women who were interviewed.

Dr. Watkins-Hayes and her research team also interviewed approximately 30 AIDS service providers in Chicago to understand how they assist HIV-positive women with their economic needs.

"We wanted to talk to a diverse array of service providers," she said. "Some focus on giving medical services, some provide case management, some do prevention work. Most do all three."

"I really think of HIV as a disease of inequality. It's always been that way, but the AIDS pandemic is increasingly shaped by racial, economic, and gender inequalities that pervade our society," said Dr. Watkins-Hayes. "While anyone can be infected with HIV, the least economically and socially advantaged among us are also the most vulnerable."

Dr. Watkins-Hayes has been studying the AIDS epidemic among women since 2005, driven by her passion toward using social science research to illuminate the social systems, institutions, and events that shape people's lives, including their health.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control reports that in 2009, nearly a quarter of diagnoses of HIV infection in the United States were among women and girls aged 13 years and older. Black women represent 14% of the female population, yet they currently account for two-thirds of new infections among women.

"Much of what is driving high infection rates among African-American women are structural inequalities. Living in communities with high poverty rates, mass incarceration, the targeted marketing of legal and illegal drugs and limited access to high-quality healthcare create a climate for HIV/AIDS to proliferate unless high-quality prevention and treatment efforts are implemented to protect women despite their environmental vulnerabilities," said Dr. Watkins-Hayes.

Dr. Watkins-Hayes is the primary investigator of the HHR study. Her researcher team includes postdoctoral fellow Jean Beaman, Ph.D; graduate research assistants Elyse Kovalsky, Marisol Mastrangelo and Courtney J. Patterson; and undergraduate research assistants Jasmyne McDonald, Ivy Zhu and Bethany Polhamus.

Before HHR, Dr. Watkins-Hayes conducted a pilot study called Sister to Sister: An Ethnographic Study of the Social Consequences of HIV/AIDS for African-American Women. This study began in 2005 and focuses on the social experiences of Black women living with HIV/AIDS in Chicago. The ultimate goal of the Sister To Study study was to highlight some of the social consequences of HIV/AIDS for this population by exploring the short- and long-term social and economic effects of the disease on the well-being of the women and their families.

Interviews will be completed on June 30, 2011. They will focus on data analysis for the next year and will be releasing papers throughout the year as data are being analyzed.

Dr. Watkins-Hayes' areas of research interest are urban poverty, social policy, HIV/AIDS and non-profit and government organizations. She also writes about race, class and gender inequality. Watkins-Hayes is also a Faculty Fellow at Northwestern's Institute for Policy Research.


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