Rutgers team aims to adapt HIV-prevention program to help domestic violence victims

    (Jose F. Moreno/AP Photo, file)

    (Jose F. Moreno/AP Photo, file)

    Researchers at Rutgers University in Camden are searching for the right approach to help lower HIV risk among women who’ve suffered domestic violence.

    Survivors of intimate partner violence have an increased chance of contracting the virus that causes AIDS, said researcher and clinical psychologist Courtenay Cavanaugh.

    “First and foremost, because they are victims of violence, much of their risk for HIV may be because they are forced or coerced into sex by an abusive partner,” Cavanaugh said.

    Domestic violence victims also may engage in consensual activity that increases their exposure to HIV, she said.

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    Cavanaugh and colleagues are starting with an education and skills-building program called SISTA — Sisters Informing Sisters about Topics on AIDS.

    SISTA, which is included on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s list of “HIV prevention that works,” was designed as a series of group sessions for African American women.

    Velesha Williams, director of Metro Jackson Community Prevention Coalition, helped establish a SISTA group at Jackson State University in Mississippi. College students there particularly enjoyed starting each meeting with a poem chosen to highlight the women’s shared ethnic heritage, Williams said.

    “It gave a sense of connection to these young ladies,” Williams said.

    At Jackson State, the women discussed life goals, their aspirations for motherhood and plans to help support the men in their lives.

    “They knew how important it was for them to be around to sustain that,” Williams said. “And in order to sustain that, how important it is to take care of their health.”

    Adapting program for women in shelters

    At Rutgers in Camden, the research team wants to figure out how SISTA might work for women living in domestic-violence shelters.

    Cavanaugh will start the adaption work through discussions with shelter directors, health educators and residents.

    “There are a lot of reasons why their involvement is really important,” she said. “A lot of times we might do research and want it to be implemented in a different setting, but the people in the setting where we want to implement it haven’t been involved in the process of that research.”

    “We’re showing them the original intervention and were asking them how they think it should be adapted for them,” Cavanaugh said.

    “We’ll ask whether they feel they can take the skills that they learned and implement them in their daily lives,” Cavanaugh said. “But that’s just perception. What we really want to do is follow them to see if they were able to do it. That’s going to require a follow-up study.”

    SISTA is a program to improve health decision-making in the spheres where women have control, but Cavanaugh said more will be required.

    “Part of addressing HIV risk in this population will have to come from reducing violence against women,” Cavanaugh said.

    The National Institute on Drug Abuse is funding the Rutgers study.

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