The fact that the numbers are rising for women with AIDS or HIV-positive diagnoses while they are shrinking for men, got Cheryl Bloemendal thinking there must be barriers to these women receiving health care.
Staff at Guelph-Wellington Women in Crisis has noted women who are fleeing violence often have difficulty accessing health care as well. And while services are available for pregnant teens and teen mothers, their biggest barrier to accessing services is not knowing how to go about it.
And so Bloemendal, who is the women’s community development coordinator at the AIDS Committee of Guelph, is pulling together agencies and organizations that focus on women and has formed the Guelph Women’s Health Alliance with a goal to reducing barriers and stigma for women seeking services.
“Studies suggest that stigma, sociological and biological factors keep women from seeking support and services in their community,” Bloemendal said. “Our vision is to ensure women in our community are receiving and have access to the medical and social service they need.”
Scarcely a year old, the alliance remains a small group, comprised of the AIDS Committee of Guelph and Wellington County, Guelph-Wellington Women in Crisis, the YMCA-YWCA of Guelph’s teen parent and Encore programs, Wyndham House, the University of Guelph’s wellness centre, Out on the Shelf, and Michael House.
Bloemendal said many agencies lack the budget to allow a staff person to sit on the alliance, so the group is establishing different levels of membership. Those who can, can be involved on the committee level; others can receive newsletters and attend events.
“I’m pretty sure that as we become more visible and agencies learn what we’re doing, there will be more interest,” Bloemendal said. “We want to identify gaps in services for women, but I know many agencies offer services that overlap with other agencies. There’s appetite for this.”
Fear, ignorance and stigma keep women from being tested for AIDS and HIV, Bloemendal said. Pregnant teens are often afraid to get help as well. “For teens, just reaching out and asking for help can be the barrier,” said Lisa Grosicki, who supervises the youth outreach program run by the Y.
Grosicki is eager for the Women’s Health Alliance to begin its work in earnest. “It’s great that Cheryl saw that need and sought us all out. We can’t tackle all the barriers, but we can make health care more inclusive across the board,” she said.
The group is planning a week’s worth of events for early March 2012 — International Women’s Week — and will announce itself in a more splashy way at that time. In the meantime, the group is circulating a survey to assess the current range of services and experience women have had in accessing help. This information will help the alliance define its next steps.