Remembering the life and work of Catherine Williams
“HIV is like a test or truth serum,” late HIV advocate Catherine Williams wrote in her memoir “I almost missed my miracle”. “It attacks your body’s resistance and it also attacks the personal you and lets you know who you really are…. I had to choose whether to give up and die or step up and face the challenges of life.”
Not only did the late Williams opt for life, but she was determined to positively impact the lives of other people living with HIV in her native Trinidad and Tobago and throughout the world. The former public servant was diagnosed with the virus in 1985, three months after her husband passed away due to unknown causes and seven months into a pregnancy. It was later determined that he had contracted HIV through a blood transfusion. When she learned that her husband’s blood tested positive for the virus Williams didn’t even know what it was.
She discovered her status at a time when there was little information about the disease and absolutely no support systems. Williams credited the first HIV clinic in Trinidad established by Dr. Farley Cleghorn with offering her first comprehensive understanding of the disease. And she is herself among the pioneers responsible for the establishment of the Community Action Resource (CARe), Trinidad’s enduring PLHIV support and advocacy organisation. Williams earned qualifications in social work and practiced as a social worker and advocate for the rest of her life. Among her first initiatives was an effort in 1989 to rally resources for a group of spurned gay men living with HIV.
One of the co-founders of CARe, Father Clyde Harvey, reflects on the significance for PLHIV of receiving support and encouragement from another person living and thriving with the disease.
“She began working in a leadership position,” he remembers. “She was a woman of tremendous faith and the first person I met who was HIV positive and dealt with it from a position of secure faith. As HIV took off as a global purpose she became one of the more articulate people who could say this is not a death sentence because you are a bad boy or girl. She was talking very deliberately about living with HIV. From the time Catherine reached 10 or 12 years as a PLHIV she became the most powerful advocate I could introduce to people. She looked quite healthy in those early days. She had her family around her. People would sit down and hear her story. It was a very important part of the process of committing to living for many people. The thing about Catherine is that she didn’t just wait for people to be brought in to hear her story… she sought them”.
In 1992 Williams attended the first international workshop for women living with HIV and the International Conference on AIDS held in Amsterdam. Inspired by meeting HIV positive women who had affirmed their lives, she went on to play a significant role in the establishment of the International Community of Women Living with HIV. Williams received the Godfrey Sealy Award for her work in the field of HIV in the Caribbean region in 2006.
“Every day I tell my PLWHA that instead of saying that the organisation is not doing enough, find out what you can do to enlarge the process so that you in turn can benefit,” Williams wrote. “”Make a contribution to generating more and step back and see the ripple effect. It’s all about our life and persons living with HIV and AIDS. You can make a difference.”
Catherine Williams lived by those words.
Caption: Late PLHIV advocate Catherine Williams (left) and Father Clyde Harvey at a meeting of faith based leaders in Port of Spain in December 2011.