I am a trustee for the Sophia Forum, which is the only organisation in the UK focused on the protection and promotion of the good health of women who are living with HIV. At Sophia Forum, we experience first-hand the impact of economic cuts and government austerity on vital work to promote the rights and wellbeing of women living with HIV and the services that women rely on. HIV support services are vital to ensure that women, and men, living with HIV can access information, support and resources to stay healthy and happy. Cuts to these services are severing a lifeline for people with HIV. For this reason, Sophia Forum has joined with many others in the HIV and sexual health sector in a new campaign, Stop HIV Cuts.
My last blog focussed on the exclusion of women from access to PrEP (a new form of HIV Prevention) in England, following a U-Turn by NHS England. Whilst the overall decision not to make PrEP available to everyone who needs it is shocking, the failure to consider the prevention needs of women is less so - it happens all the time. The specific needs, rights and realities of women are frequently not prioritised in HIV prevention, care and support.
At Sophia Forum one of our priorities is to improve awareness and services for women living with HIV who also experience domestic and other forms of violence. Violence and HIV are linked - many women living with HIV experience violence, yet our research has found that HIV and domestic violence services are ill-equipped to provide the support women need. In 2012 we published a scoping study that recommended further research and the development of good practice guidelines to better support women living with HIV who experience violence. Our efforts to raise funds to support this work have not been successful, as funding across the HIV sector has dried up.
Instead of improvement, therefore, we have seen cuts to services, both for people living with HIV and for survivors of violence. A scarcity of funds undercuts efforts to build an environment whereby women living with HIV can realise their rights to health and to live free of violence. We have huge concerns about the current cuts to organisations that offer support, help and accommodation to women who are fleeing violence that have led to refuges closing and specialist support services vanishing.
Services in the HIV sector are also increasingly under threat, as local authorities cut or reduce funding. That is why Sophia Forum is joining HIV charities from Liverpool (Sahir Trust) to Leicestershire (LASS) to London and health professional bodies, British Association for Sexual Health and HIV (BASHH), and British HIV Association to launch a new national campaign opposing cuts to HIV services across the country: Support people with HIV: Stop the cuts.
According to the press release to launch the campaign:
Increasing numbers of local authorities are pulling funding from HIV support services. The campaign has written to Secretary of State for Health, Rt Hon Jeremy Hunt calling for a meeting to discuss the impact of these cuts, demand effective commissioning, adequate funding, and access to support services for all people living with HIV.
HIV services in both Berkshire and Oxfordshire, run by Thames Valley Support and Terrence Higgins Trust respectively, have been cut by over £100,000 between them. In Berkshire this equates to a loss of a third of funding, and will directly affect 300 people living with HIV in both Slough and Bracknell.
In David Cameron's back yard, Oxfordshire County Council has cut Terrence Higgins Trust's £50,000 funding, which is forcing the closure of its local centre. The reality is that there are will be no HIV Prevention and Support service in the whole county after April 2016, with almost 500 people left with no alternative support service.
In Portsmouth the HIV support service, provided by Positive Action, has been cut by approximately £26,000 by Portsmouth City Council. Its Hampshire service has been granted an interim support payment of £30,000, less than half of the amount it historically received.
In Bexley and Bromley, equality and diversity charity, METRO is facing cuts to HIV support services of over £80,000.
Public Heath England's national HIV figures show that in 2014 alone over 6,000 people were diagnosed with HIV, while People Living with HIV Stigma Index UK- found that stigma had prevented 15 per cent of people surveyed from accessing their GP in the last year, and 66 per cent had avoided dental care.
14 per cent had received negative comments from healthcare workers. Despite the obvious roles specialist HIV support services play in combatting this they are being reduced to almost ineffective levels, or cut completely, in a short term cash save measure.
'Support people with HIV: Stop the cuts' is also appealing to members of the public to take an e-action to show their support - write to their local council leader and ask what the council is doing to support local people living with HIV.
Please visit the site and take action to oppose cuts to these vital services.
Sophia Forum endorses the campaign and the calls it makes for effective commissioning and adequate funding. Everyone living with HIV must have access to support services. For women, these services must also expand and improve to ensure that all their needs are met, and to start addressing the huge impact of domestic and other forms of violence on women living with HIV.
We need to be doing more, not less. We cannot balance the books on the backs of women living with HIV.
Emma Bell, Lynda Shentall, Jacqui Stevenson (Sophia Forum Board Members)