Why 2 Toronto hair salons are offering HIV/AIDS testing today

An Ontario charity focusing on HIV/AIDS in the black community is turning two hair salons into temporary HIV/AIDS test sites in a bid to reduce stigma and promote conversation about the disease.

Black women account for more than 50% of women diagnosed with HIV/AIDS

The project is bringing HIV/AIDS testing to hair salons and yoga studios in a bid to make testing a regular part of women's self-care routines. (ACCHO/Submitted)

As a place well known for candid conversations and honesty, Aisha Loobie figured her midtown hair salon would be the perfect venue to confront one of the most stigmatized topics in health.

"It's a safe space; it's a place where women feel comfortable to talk about a lot of things," said Loobie, the owner of Crown 'N Glory Natural Hair Studio.

"The conversations that are had in the salon are very open and very diverse."

That's why on Friday between 2 and 6 p.m., her hair studio will be transformed into a temporary "care salon," where women can get tested for HIV/AIDS while getting their hair done. The pop-up coincides with National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day.

It's a critically needed service, organizers say, since black women are diagnosed with HIV/AIDS far more often than other demographics in Ontario.

"The generalized epidemic is slowly creeping down in Ontario and Canada, but not among certain populations, including black women," said Ky'okusinga Kirunga, director at the African and Caribbean Council on HIV/AIDS in Ontario (ACCHO).

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According to ACCHO, black women make up 53 per cent of all women who test positive for HIV/AIDS in Ontario, despite the fact that they make up less than five per cent of all women in Ontario.

Aisha Loobie, right, owner of Crown ‘N Glory Natural Hair Studio, with customer Sasha Gray. Her salon will offer HIV/AIDS testing on Friday afternoon. (Aisha Loobie/Submitted)

The organization's new initiative, called The Care Collective, aims to promote HIV/AIDS testing as a regular part of black women's self-care routines.

ACCHO is targeting spaces like hair salons, yoga studios, and other places where women gather to promote the importance of regular testing.

"The truth is that HIV is still a stigmatized topic. People feel stigma, people feel fear," Kirunga said.

"When you put [testing] under the rubric of self-care, women take to it so much better."

The project is expected to run for at least the next two years in collaboration with other HIV/AIDS organizations around the province.

HIV/AIDS not 'a virus from the 80s and 90s'

For the first day of the initiative, ACCHO will send certified medical professionals to conduct HIV/AIDS tests at two locations: Crown 'N Glory Natural Hair Studio near Yonge Street and Eglinton Avenue and Nappy's Hair Studio near Midland Avenue and Highway 401 in Scarborough.

The tests will be discreet, Kirunga said, and can be completed in around 15 minutes.

Beyond providing on-site testing, the program is designed to promote conversation around HIV/AIDS and dampen the stigma surrounding it.

"We do not talk about HIV in Canada in general, it's seen as a disease or a virus from the 80s and 90s," Kirunga said.

The legacy of racism associated with the virus disproportionately affects black Canadians, she added, which may discourage some members of her community being from confronting the problem through testing.

To promote Friday's event, Crown 'N Glory Natural Hair Studio will be offering vouchers to customers who come in for testing. 

Loobie says it's an incentive for customers to come back to her salon, but she's hoping it also changes how women think about their health and self-care routines. 

"After this event, I hope that women will just take the initiative to get tested on their own," Loobie said.

According to provincial statistics, more than 26,000 Ontarians are living with HIV/AIDS, which the government describes as an epidemic.

In addition to black Canadians, HIV/AIDS disproportionately affects Indigenous people, gay and bisexual men, and people who inject drugs, according to Ontario's Ministry of Health.