With recent alarming statistics of an abundance of AIDS cases among African-American women, Access Community Health Network has helped launch the SISTA project. The program seeks to address the disparity on the West side between African-American women and other women. All categories of women have increased over the last decade but none have risen as rapidly as black women.

Among the disheartening stats:

? New AIDS case rates approximately four times greater than women of other racial and ethnic groups.

? 87 percent of cumulative AIDS cases among Chicago females are in women of color, with 68 percent of the cases in black women.

? Black, white, and Hispanic women are all experiencing increases in the number of people living with AIDS, but black women have prevalence rates three times greater than Hispanic women, who, in turn, have prevalence rates about twice that of white women.

? In Chicago, the proportion of AIDS cases occurring among women tripled from 7 percent in 1988 to 22 percent in 1997, and women now represent about 15 percent of the cumulative AIDS cases in Chicago. Although non-Hispanic black women comprise 39 percent of Chicago women by population, they account for almost 70 percent of the cumulative AIDS cases among Chicago women.

The SISTA Project?”or Sisters Informing Sisters about Topics on Aids?”is a social skills training intervention program aimed at reducing HIV sexual risk behaviors among African-American women. It is funded by U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“The women selected for this program are women who are at risk of engaging in unprotected sex,” said Katrina Holmes, program manager of the SISTA Program. “Some of these women are incarcerated, in shelters or in other social service programs. These are high-risk heterosexual women who aren’t HIV-positive but who engage in unprotected sex, use IV drugs and abuse alcohol.”

The program began last June 2004, and consists of five, weekly 2-hour sessions, held in an Afro-centric setting. The program is led by Holmes, case manager Kimberly Pierce, and peer advocate Brenda Myers who hold a class a day at five separate locations, including Genesis House, (located at 2815 W. 5th Ave.). It offers a safe haven for women looking to leave prostitution and reform their lives. Weekly classes are also held at Sisters House (851 N. Leamington), New Age Service (1330 S. Kostner), Grace House (1801 W. Adams), and the Madison Family Health Center, located at 3800 W. Madison St., where the program is based.

Many of the women volunteering to take part in the program are women who have had problems in their lives either because of substance abuse, homelessness or prostitution and are looking to reform their lives. They consider the SISTA program to be a giant step towards rebuilding their lives.

“Our sessions are gender- and culturally-relevant,” said Holmes. “This means that the sessions are for African-American women, conducted by African-American women. There is artwork, aromatherapy and music that make us ‘one.’ The entire environment is Afro-centered.”

The sessions strengthen both the participants’ sense of self-confidence and their understanding of HIV and AIDS and how in can be contracted and treated. During the sessions the women discuss HIV/AIDS education; ethnic/gender pride; self-assertiveness skills training; behavioral skills management and coping skills.

“We simply want to help women explore ways to lead healthier lives and make healthier choices regarding their risk for HIV as well as other STDs. We want to let them know that they are important and valued.”

Along with the in-class discussions and role-playing exercises that prepare the women for a variety of circumstances where they could likely engage a risky sexual behavior, such as at a club or bar the women also have take-home assignment where they answer questions about what they’ve learned.

“Sometimes familiarity with a mate can create a sense of trust and women would be more hesitant to discuss the topic of STDs with their partner,” says Holmes. “However, within the confines of this project we want to give them that sense of empowerment so that they can demand that their partner practice safer sex without hesitation.”

For more information about the program, which is open to all African-American women, contact Katrina Holmes at 773/826-0369.