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Women and HIV/AIDS: Support Issues

Key Issues:

    • HIV-positive women represent a diverse segment of The population, and support networks need to be as diverse as possible to meet their needs.
    • Fear of disclosing one’s HIV status can cause HIV-positive women to experience isolation.
    • Women need greater support in their homes. Domestic violence is a reality for many HIV-positive women.
    • Women need access to legal information and treatment issues to support their parenting when they and/or their children are HIV-positive.

Support issues for women living with HIV/AIDS are a growing concern for AIDS service organizations, health care providers, policy-makers and more importantly, for the women themselves, their families, friends and care givers. Two major factors bring HIV-positive women’s needs to the fore, needs that have often been neglected or perceived as secondary. First, increasingly women are contracting HIV, and second, many people living with HIV/AIDS are living longer and, to varying degrees, healthier lives. This situation calls for the long-term planning of support services that equally address the needs of women and men living with HIV/AIDS. HIV-positive women must be included in all planning initiatives.

HIV-positive women have specific concerns, the most obvious of which relate to children. However, women must not be reduced to childbearing and child-rearing roles, as many concerns are not child-related. Even when there is a definite need for support for HIV-positive women around child-related issues, other types of supports are as important.

General HIV Support Issues

Various practical, therapeutic and psycho-social supports are key factors in helping people living with HIV/AIDS cope with their illness and the resulting issues. These supports can also be a force in slowing disease progression. People living with HIV/AIDS tend to be healthier when they have a comprehensive network of peer, family, community and medical support. AIDS service organizations, health care providers and, education and advocacy groups work hard to provide health information, referrals, counselling, support groups, buddies, hospice care, complimentary therapies, child care, transportation and food. They also strive to educate families, community members and policy-makers about the need for such services and adequate resources to provide them. However women’s needs may not be fully met through AIDS service organizations because some of them do not deal specifically with women’s issues.

Specific Issues Faced by Women Living with HIV/AIDS


Women living with HIV/AIDS often experience an intense degree of isolation. Due to concerns over disclosure of HIV-positive status, it is often difficult for HIV-positive women to find one another and establish peer support networks. There is also a lack of outreach, particularly to rural women and newcomers to Canada. In addition, existing services might not be gender-sensitive, and even if they are, women may not be aware that such services are available. Isolation can also result from poverty, which can prevent many HIV-positive women from accessing various support and information networks that currently exist.

Even if services and networks are in place they may not be appropriate for all women. For example, there may be support groups for the newly diagnosed, mothers, or women in recovery but not all HIV-positive women fit into one of these groups. Finally, if a woman’s partner or child is HIV-positive, she may feel compelled to stay home as a care-give, putting aside her own needs.

Relationships, Sexuality and Family

There are a number of issues that arise for HIV-positive women in the context of relationships and family. Domestic violence, sexual and alcohol use can create high-risk environments for women, and these issues must be dealt with for women to be safe. Funding for women’s shelters, rape crisis centres, and abuse programs must be increased. There is a need for knowledgeable, sensitive support for women to feel confident in and comfortable with engaging in healthy sexual relationships. Too often society treats women as “vectors” (carriers) of disease and HIV-positive women may feel they have no right to be sexual beings. Reproductive decision-making requires increased access to information and support. Having a child is the decision and choice of HIV-positive women, and will require pre- and post-natal information and access to treatment for both mother and child. Women must also have access to legal information about treatment consent issues for their HIV-positive children. State-intervention (removal of HIV-positive children from the home, and court ordered treatment) is of growing concern for many mothers of HIV-positive children.

Women are often the primary care-givers in families. Support is needed to help HIV-positive women decide if, when and how to disclose their status to their children, family, friends, and co-workers. Women live in many different forms of family, and in all of them, women remain central in maintaining the relationship that hold people together. Supportive extended family, whether biological and traditional or chosen and community-based, can be influential in aiding HIV-positive women to lead better quality of lives. With this in mind, health care services and support agencies must be open to changing policies and procedures that exclude cultural difference and people in women’s lives who do not fit into traditional definitions of family as biological and linked through heterosexual marriage. When women have to fight for their support systems to be acknowledged it undermines their health, emotional well-being and their autonomy in deciding the course of their treatment and life-choices. HIV-positive mothers also need support with end-of-life planning and preparation for the care of their children.

Health and Support Services

There are a number of specific services that would facilitate easier access to supports to assist women in their support needs. Women need affordable, quality childcare and transportation so that they can access supports such as counseling, support groups and complementary therapies.

HIV-positive women often experience difficulty finding adequate and quality health care. Knowledge of HIV research and treatment has, for the most part, been based on the experiences of men, and many doctors are unaware of how HIV and treatments affect women. Further, health care practitioners may have prejudices about which 'types' of women contract HIV. Therefore, it can be difficult to find an appropriate doctor. In the case of women living in rural areas there may be no choice of practitioners.

Several factors prevent consistent care and support for HIV-positive Aboriginal women. They include the lack of culturally appropriate services within White society, frequent relocation between rural and urban centres; and the lack of support services within many First Nation communities. The lack of culturally appropriate services within White society reflects the long history of oppression of Aboriginals. For First Nation communities, health issues are an emerging priority.


Violence can be a disturbingly common experience in the lives of HIV-positive women. According to the Health Canada (1998) report, HIV and Sexual Violence Against Women, women living with HIV face additional fear and threat of rejection or emotional, physical and/or sexual violence from the men who are closest to them, including husbands, lovers, family members and co-workers. In the context of a battering relationships, disclosure of a woman’s HIV status to her violent partner can often increase the likelihood of his using physical and/or sexual violence to control her. There is need for more skilled and compassionate support workers at AIDS service organizations about violence against women, including emphasis on networking with local women’s groups such as rape crisis centres and transition houses which have long provided resources for raped and battered women.

Women and HIV/AIDS: Support Issues. © Canadian AIDS Society. Published 07/27/2007. Updated 02/28/2010. Web. Retrieved 08/28/2016 from