Yasmin Halima wants to provide women with ways to protect themselves from HIV—and the knowledge that, as she has, they can transform their lives.
Yasmin Halima left her conservative community to pursue education, a career, and a way to help women protect themselves from HIV
Editor’s note: Yasmin Halima was director of the Global Campaign for Microbicides, which was housed at PATH 1998–2012. A version of this story first appeared in GCM’s newsletter, GC News.
My trajectory is not that of the typical fast-track professional. I was born in India, but my family migrated to Great Britain when I was young. I grew up in a predominantly Gujarati-Muslim community in the middle of England, where to this day my family continues the tradition of arranged marriages and women are veiled. My family never expected that I would participate in life outside of the home, let alone get an education or work.
So when I announced at age 26 that I was leaving the community with my 6-year-old daughter, my family was shocked and dismayed. That was the beginning of a long journey toward getting a formal education and a career in public health.
I worked at McDonald’s to pay my way through my first degree—a bachelor’s in educational research and psychology. In my first real job with the United Kingdom Department of Health, I learned a great deal about health research and policy—and about the bureaucracy of government structures. Frustrated, I left to become a caseworker for an HIV project that supported people from ethnic minority communities.
My family never expected that I would participate in life outside of the home, let alone get an education or work.
This was my first real encounter with HIV. I saw my clients struggle with the complexities of life as immigrants and minorities living with a disease for which there is treatment, but inadequate support and access to it. Their experiences motivated me to become a treatment activist. That meant I not only had to understand their circumstances but also had to learn the basics of HIV science and treatment.
It’s who you meet
I believe our journeys in life are determined by the people we meet—what they teach us and how they inspire us. When I took a job at the International AIDS Society, I met Dr. Helene Gayle, who was then the society’s president. An impressive, formidable woman, she mentored me and encouraged me to pursue an international career.
By then I was convinced that HIV treatment alone was not sustainable. As the epidemic grew and more people, especially women, became infected, prevention technologies seemed to offer a way for women to protect themselves. I was fortunate to meet Mike Cohen, a professor in the School of Medicine at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Mike educated me on the science of transmission and the potential for biomedical prevention technologies to change the global landscape of HIV.
For me, this was an epiphany—and the start of my advocacy and professional life in HIV biomedical prevention.
Coming to the United States
Encouraged by Gayle, Cohen, and others, I left the UK for New York’s Columbia University to pursue a master’s degree in public health. As a Muslim and a woman of color, it was challenging to come to the United States. Ultimately, however, I was presented with so many opportunities that after my graduation, it seemed inevitable that I would stay.
Still, when the opportunity arose in 2009 to lead the Global Campaign for Microbicides (GCM), which is housed at PATH, I was hesitant to apply. To give up returning to England would require a very good reason indeed! But I strongly believe in GCM’s work—to expand HIV prevention options with new tools that women could use to protect themselves from HIV. GCM was at a critical juncture and needed strong leadership to build upon its knowledge and well-earned respect in the community—and I was up for the task.
Transforming the lives of women
So, here I am 20 years after leaving home—in Washington, DC, with GCM poised to grow stronger. We’re working closely with our friends in science, community, and industry to make microbicides and other prevention technologies available. More than that, we want to give women the tools to transform their lives, just as I have been able to transform my own life.
Recently we celebrated my daughter’s graduation. She is now the age I was when I left my community to pursue a career. Armed with a medical degree from Cambridge University, she’s planning to embark on a career in infectious diseases.
I hope telling our story will help others understand the complexities of women’s experiences, the struggles we collectively face, and ultimately, that we can change the paths constructed for us.
Photo: Stephanie Gross.