I Want to Change the Power Dynamics in Relationships

From The New York Daily News


Wednesday, July 4th 2007, 4:00 AM

Even after Dr. Mehret Mandefro had repeatedly warned them to always use a condom, girls and women would return to her office with sexually transmitted diseases. She was deeply disturbed and wondered how she could get through to them.

“When I would talk about the need to use condoms, I would see a lot of glazed looks,” she recalls.

Then she started talking to them about their relationships.

“I would ask, ‘Were you in love? Were you not?'” she recalls. “These girls can be very smart and savvy; they understand, for instance, they may be sleeping with men to find the love they didn’t get from their fathers.”

At 30, Mandefro is a resident in internal medicine at Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx and the founder of TruthAIDS, a nonprofit whose mission is to combat HIV infection among women. She is also the subject of “Mehret,” an upcoming documentary.

While working as a resident, her re-search has included interviewing women and girls both in the clinic at Montefiore and in schools. Her drive is to better understand the spread of HIV, especially among black women – whose rates of infection are increasing more dramatically than those of other groups, most commonly through heterosexual sex.

“[When we talk solely about the importance of using condoms,] we’re abstracting sex from relationships, and that’s not how people live their lives,” she says.

Her research suggests psychological issues related to self-esteem, as well as domestic violence and cultural attitudes, factor into many females’ inability to protect themselves against HIV and other STDs.

“Society still favors male sexual autonomy over women’s,” says Mandefro, who is single and lives in East Harlem. “In many communities, you’re ‘bad,’ as a girl, if you carry a condom.”

The ultimate goal of her research – which she will field-test next year as a fellow at the University of Pennsylvania – is to create school curriculums and media campaigns to build girls’ and women’s self-esteem.

“I want to see what we can do to change the power dynamics in relationships,” she says, “to make girls feel more comfortable, whether carrying condoms, talking about sex or confronting domestic violence.”

Born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and raised on the outskirts of Washington, Mandefro also has conducted research and worked with patients in Africa. “I never let go of my Ethiopian identity, and I still feel obligated to try to change things there,” she says.

Her family fled Ethiopia when a Communist regime came to power and tried to assassinate her father, Ayalew Mandefro, at the time the country’s minister of defense.

While still an undergraduate at Harvard, where she majored in anthropology, Mandefro spent summers in her homeland, as well as in Botswana, South Africa and Nairobi, Kenya.

In Botswana she worked as a liaison between Harvard scientists and local health care providers to help distribute medication. In Addis Ababa she conducted research on the stigma HIV-infected women faced.

Her work in Africa cemented her decision to attend Harvard Medical School, and later earn a Masters of Science in public health as a Fulbright scholar at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

In London she struck a friendship with fellow Fulbright scholar and “funky New York filmmaker” Emily Abt, whose interests in health and public policy jibed with Mandefro’s.

The documentary, scheduled for independent release in the fall, follows Mandefro’s work and the stories of two HIV-infected women who had received treatment in Montefiore’s clinic, Chevelle Wilson and Tara Stanley.

Wilson, 40, of East Tremont Ave. in the Bronx, credits Mandefro with helping her secure employment as a public speaker for Love Heals, the Alison Gertz Foundation for AIDS Education, and for helping her tell her story on film.

“I feel in my heart it’s going to be a powerful film and open up a lot of people’s eyes,” said Wilson. “HIV/AIDS is not going anywhere, but it’s up to us to stop the spread of it.”

While she is off to the next stage of her career in Philadelphia, her patients will miss her.

“She’s a beautiful person, a caring person,” said Félix Colón, 53, of Highbridge, the Bronx, who came to her for sciatica.

“I couldn’t sleep at night, I had so much pain. Now I can sleep better and walk better. She’s like my angel. God is sending her to another place, so maybe they need her more there. But I will miss her.”

She has just accepted a seat on the New York City Department of Health’s HIV Community Advisory Board, which will bring her back to the city once a month or so.

“Oh, I’ll be back,” she says with a smile.

For additional information visit www.truthaids.org/index.php or www.purelandpictures.com.

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