When Seh (pronounced Shay) Welch learned that women and girls are the fastest-growing population in terms of HIV/AIDS diagnoses in the United States and Pima County, it seemed like a good idea to call attention to the problem in hopes that more women would get tested. Welch, director of HIV services at Native Images, is used to organizing awareness and education programs for American Indian women, but for National Women and Girls HIV/AIDS Awareness Day, on March 10, she brought together numerous organizations that serve women. Welch says silence from elected officials who are women provided her with her greatest lesson while organizing the event. For information on Native Images, call 882-6120.

What is the point of National Women and Girls HIV/AIDS Awareness Day?

We decided to (mark) this in Tucson, because we realized nobody has particularly focused on women and girls as a community event. Then I was looking at statistics and saw that Pima County has the highest prevalence of HIV disease in all of Arizona. The number of women diagnosed with HIV in Pima County has increased 23 percent. That's enough of a reason for us to get (organizations) together.

What is surprising about these women who are newly diagnosed?

So many women are infected through heterosexual contact, and they believe they are in a monogamous relationship. We're trying to reduce any kind of barriers and also bring awareness to the fact that if you are an injection drug user, that is a co-factor, and if you are having sex with a man who has sex with men, then you have a higher risk factor, and if you are a sex worker, you have a risk factor. But 88 percent of women who are newly infected are infected through heterosexual contact--no other risk factor.

Part of your work is to normalize testing. What do you mean?

Make HIV testing part of mammography and Pap smears. On March 10, we wanted to bring awareness and try to normalize it, because, look, we don't know what our partners are doing; we don't know what our partners have done, or what we have done to put ourselves at risk. But what we do know is if we get tested, we can prolong our lives.

What surprised you most as you began to organize the event?

Politics. We have 14 organizations that have never come together before around a women's day. Pima County and Tucson have never had a day of (HIV) awareness for women and girls. To have elected women officials confirm and then decide they have something else to do--it's disappointing. Quite frankly, it hits the heart when so many women have worked so hard to get women elected, and you look and say, "Well, what women's issues have they been addressing as our elected officials for x number of years?" ... Representatives from the Pima County/Tucson Women's Commission participated, as did Tucson City Councilmember Karin Uhlich. But it's very interesting that (County Supervisor) Sharon Bronson, who had confirmed, decided that something more important came up. (Supervisor) Ann Day didn't respond. (City Councilmember) Nina Trasoff (did not come). Look, I'm not going to negotiate with these politicians to get them to come, because women and girls' lives don't get to be negotiated. This isn't a political platform. This is about showing leadership, and maybe at events like these, women who are in the public eye inspire women to get tested.

Beyond local, you got a national company to donate free HIV tests.

Yes, OraSure just received (Food and Drug Administration) approval for this new test that is a mouth swab. We asked if they could provide tests, and they said, "Absolutely, we'll help you in any way we can." They provided us with 200 test kits. There is no blood involved, and you know right away, and we provided the test for free.

The event was to end with a candlelight walk. Why was that important?

When we began planning, we thought of calling it a candlelight march, but then the implication is we are protesting something. ... We are bringing light to this issue and light to downtown Tucson, the city and county government. Maybe most elected officials didn't come because they thought we'd ask for money, and it would become a budget issue. We're not asking for an increase in services, dollars or anything. We're just asking them to think about women and girls' health and say something to show us they care to be part of the solution to bring attention to this crisis.