Meet Jill Gay: A gender data advocate on a mission to end HIV/AIDS

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June 28, 2016

Jill Gay sat in the front row of the large conference room. She arrived early to meet new people interested in USAID’s initiatives — and to munch on a few ideas over breakfast. The purpose of the USAID panel was to discuss scaling up solutions to help reduce maternal mortality. As an attendee, Jill asked questions with confidence and referred to global development organizations in both their old and new acronyms; she had worked with them all. After sitting with her during breakfast, it was evident that Jill was an important person to meet and introduce to the Global Moms community.

Jill has been working in the global development sector for more than thirty years working on initiatives to support women’s health. She’s the key author of What Works for Women and Girls: Evidence for HIV/AIDS Interventions, a website that has compiled evidence to support successful HIV programs, and she serves as the chief technology officer for What Works Association (WWA). Her organization, WWA, analyzes gender data to help provide countries with a better understanding the obstacles that keep the world from completely eliminating the spread of the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

“Our plan to use an evidence-based approach to help reduce the HIV/AIDS epidemic originated in 2007, when Shannon Kowalski attended a meeting of the Global Fund,” says Jill. Shannon asked the panel why the Global Fund wasn’t doing more at the time to address gender issues. “The answer was, ‘we have no evidence to support gender at this time.’ So we got started.”

Picture of Jill Gay

In 2008, Jill traveled to Ethiopia and Botswana on a research trip to learn more about the epidemic in these communities. Photograph courtesy What Works Association

The Importance of Gender Data

The concept of using data to help shape policy isn’t new — the United Nations has been collecting data for decades — but the argument for stronger gender data has been gaining momentum in the global health community.

Gender data was a hot button issue at the Women Deliver Conference in Copenhagen a few weeks ago. It was reinforced by a new $80 million commitment from the Gates Foundation to support “shaping of policies and data to support the sustainable development goals” through collecting better data about women.

Along with personal interviews and other research methods, gender data can help governments understand the leading causes and challenges to address a societal issue; which is why the What Works Association is an important organization for groups like PEPFAR and USAID that are working to end the epidemic.

Major Challenges Facing HIV/AIDS

Since the launch of their original findings in 2010, Jill has been focusing her research on a worrying statistic: Why adolescents are dying faster from HIV/AIDS than any other age group.

“If you are born with HIV and are not diagnosed, you have a 50 percent chance of dying before the age of two. Some of them will make it through childhood and live until adolescence. Then there are the adolescents who are getting infected and they don’t have access to clinics to help support them,” says Jill. In short, young people are living with and contracting the disease without receiving the health support and diagnosis they need to receive lifesaving treatment.

Jill hopes that the publication of her new report will help communicate about new prevention tools and services to ensure that young girls won’t get left behind in the global AIDS response. [Read the full report.]

There are various barriers that keep the overall global response to HIV/AIDS from completely eradicating the disease. “It’s also still highly-stigmatized in many parts of the world,” Jill adds. But none of this has kept her from continuing her research. She is excited about how far we’ve come in a few decades and is enthusiastic about the countries making serious progress towards eradication such as New Zealand, where sex work has been decriminalized thanks to groups such as the New Zealand Prostitutes Collective.

Picture of Jill Gay

Jill sits on a panel at the 2012 International AIDS conference.

What’s Next for HIV/AIDS Gender Data?

Over the course of the past few years, her organization’s website has grown to fill more than 500 pages. “It’s enough to fill an entire book,” she laughs. “The amount of data about HIV/AIDS, and the demand from countries for more information, is growing — and that’s a good thing.”

What Works for Women will be discussing their full research findings on preventing the spread of HIV to adolescent girls and holding a workshop on how countries can use their new evidence at the upcoming International AIDS Conference in Durban, South Africa, taking place from July 18-22, 2016.

“The last time the AIDS Conference was in South Africa, the country was denying that the epidemic even existed,” Jill explains. The HIV/AIDS and global health community have come a long way since then. Thanks to Jill’s work collecting gender data, the world continues to learn how we can help to address the epidemic together.

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