Empowered to Be Greater Than AIDS

WASHINGTON, DC - DECEMBER 01: Alicia Keys and Bono speak during the 2011 World AIDS Day discussion at George Washington Unive
WASHINGTON, DC - DECEMBER 01: Alicia Keys and Bono speak during the 2011 World AIDS Day discussion at George Washington University on December 1, 2011 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Kris Connor/Getty Images)

Eva learned she was HIV positive at 17. She is now a mother, grandmother and professional caregiver dedicated to proving HIV positive does not mean the end. Cristina was born HIV positive when her mother passed it on to her through breastfeeding. She is now a graduate student in a 15-year monogamous relationship with her HIV negative boyfriend. Jen tested positive for HIV twenty years ago and admits she never thought it would happen to her. She now lives with her husband and her daughter, both HIV negative. Stephanie learned she was HIV positive at the age of 19. She is now a college graduate and an artist using her talents to inspire change. And lastly, Kym was affected with the disease by her husband who was aware of his HIV status for 10 years -- but never told her. She refuses to keep HIV silent.

I first became involved in the HIV/AIDS crisis in 2001, after a visit to Africa, where the epidemic is most prevalent and basic education and treatments are still not in reach for those most vulnerable to the disease. Following that visit, I co-founded an organization called Keep a Child Alive, an organization I proudly continue to partner with to this day.

For the past ten years, I've raised my voice on behalf of the women and children fighting for their lives. What's striking to me, despite so many differences, is how many similarities unite us in this global fight to end HIV -- that knowledge is the best way to overcome ignorance and fear, that courage is the best way to overcome stigma and shame, and that empowerment is the best way to overcome complacency.

We must recognize that women are the backbone of families and communities, and that is why I was particularly shocked and saddened when I first learned that of the more than 1.1 million Americans living with HIV today -- one in four is a woman. And worse yet, Black women have been disproportionately affected, accounting for a majority of new infections among women. We will never see an AIDS-free generation without harnessing the power and strength of women.

In Africa, mothers and daughters in the tiniest, most remote villages are taking steps to empower their communities to prevent the spread of the disease. Meanwhile in America, women like Eva, Cristina, Jen, Stephanie and Kym are becoming empowered in a different way -- to change the stigma associated with an HIV diagnosis.

We know that HIV is both preventable and treatable, yet because of STIGMA women don't talk about it openly, we don't use protection, we don't get tested, and we don't stay on treatment. In addition to stigma, there are still far too many misconceptions when we think and talk about HIV.

The EMPOWERED campaign builds on my advocacy work with Keep a Child Alive, and on my battle cry to put women first. EMPOWERED came out of a Kaiser Family Foundation event where I had the privilege of listening to several awe-inspiring women share their stories about what it was to be HIV positive. They were living right here in America. And they were just like you and just like me.

These women have come together, one HIV positive story at a time, to stand up to their status and be forces of change in their communities and for women all over the world. I was so moved by the strength of these women, their positive message, and their commitment to changing the way we think about what it means to live with a positive status in 2013.

These EMPOWERED women have dreams and plans for the future. They are mothers, wives, sisters, daughters, students, caregivers and business owners. Individually, they are falling in love, starting families, and pursuing careers. Together, they are breaking down barriers and learning to live with newfound freedom.

The EMPOWERED campaign features these five extraordinary women in what is a beautiful start to this conversation -- helping change the way we think about HIV in the U.S. Their role is to empower women -- both those living with HIV and those who are allies in the fight -- in every way possible to live full and healthy lives and help prevent the spread of the disease (if positive) by staying on treatment. These powerful women come from all walks of life and are triumphing over HIV. Their dedication to living life to the fullest has allowed them to not only excel in the ways they always imagined, but to find a greater sense of purpose in the virus and offer women, everywhere, a pillar of strength and understanding. As they've grown from the disease, they've also learned how to fight it in every way. They've fought the internal battle with themselves... they've fought the stigma in culture... and they are fighting the disease with a trailblazing spirit. And today, all of these women are greater than AIDS. Our hope is that other women living with a similar status can take comfort in knowing they are not alone, and be inspired by coming together. We can and must be:

EMPOWERED to know the facts about HIV/AIDS, including the impact of HIV on women;

EMPOWERED to speak openly about HIV/AIDS with family, friends and others in our lives;

EMPOWERED to protect ourselves and our loved ones;

EMPOWERED to ask to be tested and to know doing so is an act of pride, not shame;

EMPOWERED to take control of our health, which if HIV positive means getting on treatment and staying in care.

Join me, Eva, Cristina, Jen, Stephanie and Kym and with each healthy day, we can be EMPOWERED to be Greater than AIDS. We all have a role to play -- whether positive or negative -- and we are a powerful force when we join our hands and voices together. Who do you know? Who can you help? What do you think? How does this make u feel? Empower your community by sharing this video with your loved ones and start the conversation! Empower your community and support this work.

For an in-depth exclusive with Alicia on EMPOWERED tune into Sanjay Gupta MD this Saturday 4/27/13 at 4:30pm, and Sunday 4/28/13 at 7:30am on CNN.