Last Friday morning at 4 AM, when most of New Orleans was sleeping, one or more arsonists torched the offices of Women With A Vision (WWAV), a group run by activist women of color. Deon Haywood, the Executive Director, and the other women of WWAV and their legal team recently won a major victory against Louisiana’s “Crimes Against Nature” law. This law, which was resurrected by the New Orleans police post-Katrina, targets female sex workers and requires those convicted to register as sex offenders (“johns” do not have to register). These women must then pay hundreds of dollars annually to maintain the registration or be jailed. Once registered, women face losing their children, being denied employment, police harassment – the list tragically goes on.
The arsonist(s) knew what he was doing. He targeted rooms where WWAV holds women’s health and HIV education groups. He stacked up plastic replicas of breasts and vaginas used to teach women how to do self-exams, and ignited them. Silencing women is an age-old art. Often it is done with slurs, fists, rape and other violence. He just now added fire to the list. With bombings of abortion clinics in the South rising, it is of little surprise that someone or some group felt at liberty to teach WWAV a lesson by burning down their offices. Did he just mean to ignite fear in a community already struggling for healing? Was it punishment for the legal victory in March? Was it because WWAV dares to work with women , including transgender women, to help them obtain what they need to survive – housing, healthcare, support? We may never know exactly, but the overall message is clear.
In the HIV/AIDS community we all know how to turn a message on its head and make it our own. HIV+ women and women at risk have been doing that for almost 30 years as the HIV/AIDS epidemic unfolded around them and then left them behind. Clinical trials have excluded them, new breakthroughs have often eluded them and neither federal policy nor funding has reflected their needs. Organizations like WWAV, often female-led, have struggled to serve women marginalized by poverty, homelessness, HIV and gender-based health disparities – but they have been marginalized too. They have operated on a shoestring. They have always been vulnerable. Fire isn’t the only way used to silence them. Funding cuts or no funding at all silences them too.
We join the women of WWAV in fighting for the lives of marginalized women. We support their rebirth. We want them to expand. We ask funders both public and private to make funding for women’s services a priority. By doing this, we send a message loud and clear that that we won’t allow women struggling for their lives to be left behind again.
In the next few weeks, we will be posting updates on our site. To date, neither the New Orleans police nor the fire department has followed-up with an investigation. WWAV is now seeking help from the US Department of Justice to investigate this as a potential “hate crime”. When an arsonist breaks into the offices of fierce women of color, sets fire to HIV education materials and torches plastic replicas of vaginas and breasts, we’d say the evidence is clear. Stay tuned.