A dozen community groups are planning a public forum at Ballou High School on Monday night to help educate local women and teenage girls about the risk of AIDS.
In commemoration of World AIDS Day, which this year focuses on women and AIDS, organizers -- including teachers, AIDS activists, medical experts and civic leaders -- said the forum will offer people straightforward and specific information about the risks to themselves and to their community.
As of Oct. 31, 172 District women were reported infected with the HIV virus, a 1 percent increase over last year, according to the D.C. Department of Public Health. HIV is a virus that causes AIDS.
Since 1988, the rate of HIV infection among District teenagers has doubled to nearly 20 cases, said Kathy Woodward, a doctor at Children's Hospital, who called the trend "alarming."
Jackie Sadler, director of AIDS education for D.C. public schools and a primary organizer of Monday's forum, said it is vital to dispel myths and stereotypes surrounding the disease.
"Education is crucial," she said, noting that AIDS is the nation's seventh-leading cause of death among 14- to 25-year-olds. "There is a proclivity among adolescents to believe, 'It can't happen to me,' " she said. "We have to tell them, if you're sexually active, you can be exposed."
Jacquelyn Wilkerson, of the D.C. Women's Council on AIDS, agreed. "HIV infection among women, especially among women of color, is increasing rapidly," she said. "And because most organizations are targeted at men, women are falling through the cracks."
The two-hour forum, which begins at 7 p.m. at the high school at Fourth and Trenton streets SE, will feature 30-minute discussions by panels of experts on risk factors, prevention techniques and safe sex.
Every Day Theater, a local performing group, will present "Till Death Do Us Part," a play about risk factors, and Margaret Kadree, a physician, will field medical questions. A group of women who are HIV-positive also will be available to answer questions.
Organizers said they hope to promote an overall message of compassion for people with AIDS. Denise Ralph, of the Women's Council, said the public health sector has done a disservice by equating AIDS with death.
"It's not an immediate death sentence," Ralph said. And "if you diminish their hopes, these people are less likely to be responsible" in their sexual practices.