Increased Access to Healthcare Facilities for Pregnant Women who Use Drugs in Kyrgyzstan

A total of 8,392 people living with HIV (PLHIV) were registered in the Kyrgyz Republic on 1 July 2018. Transmission of HIV is connected to drug use. Recently, sexual transmission has become a popular mode of transmission as well. While the total registered injecting HIV cases have decreased by almost 30% over the past nine years (2008-2017), the incidence of drug use in certain regions of Kyrgyzstan remains high. Moreover, the number of new HIV cases among women increased by almost 10% over the past nine years (2008-2017).

In Kyrgyzstan, women who use drugs still have limited access to obstetrics-gynaecology services and often face stigma and discrimination from the medical staff. With a lack of knowledge among doctors on how to best support and treat pregnant women with substance dependence, women were sent to abortion clinics even after the acceptable period for termination of pregnancy. In general, it was not known that women who use drugs could get healthy children. Women who use drugs themselves were also afraid to be denied medical care when doctors would find out they used drugs.

A working group composed of the Kyrgyz community-led organisation (CBO) Asteria and representatives of the Ministry of Health, National Centre of the mother and child protection, National Narcology Centre, and State Institute of postgraduate education and a specialist on evidence for medicine was set up and coordinated by AFEW Kyrgyzstan.  A new clinical protocol was developed reflecting the needs of women who use drugs under the guidance of these women themselves. The clinical protocol Care in pregnancy, childbirth and the puerperium for women who use psychoactive substances was developed and approved as a Clinical Guideline by Kyrgyz Ministry of Health in January of 2017.

Medical staff in Kyrgyzstan was subsequently trained on implementation of the guideline. A representative of the Kyrgyz State Medical Institute for post-graduates reported that the knowledge of the doctors increased by 80% after trainings have been carried out. So far, 100 staff of the medical Institute and gynaecologists at the primary health care and maternity hospitals of Bishkek and Osh have been trained.  The implementation of the clinical guideline is under control of the Ministry of Health of Kyrgyz Republic. Stigma and discrimination from health care providers and policymakers against women who use drugs have decreased significantly. Service providers now understand better that proper care during pregnancy for all is a chance for improving the health of mother and child.

“I used drugs for 10 years, was detained several times, was released, and lived without documents. Then I joined the Opioid Substitution Therapy (OST) programme, restored my documents, got a job, got married. When I applied for medical services when I was pregnant, the doctor insisted on an abortion, saying that the child would be born inferior. I gave birth; the child is healthy, now he is 2 years old and 7 months”.

L. PF Podruga, Osh, a client of a community centre for women who use drugs

With the support of the Bridging the Gaps programme, it was possible to integrate harm reduction with sexual reproductive health and rights for women who use drugs. Sustainability of the guideline’s implementation has been secured thanks to the inclusion in the National Medical Institute of Postgraduate Education and the World Health Organisation’s Compendium of good practices in the health sector response to HIV in the WHO European Region. AFEW-Kyrgyzstan closely monitors the implementation of the guideline.

Pain Relief: Ukraine is on the Way to Legalizing Medical Marijuana

Authors: Yuliana Skibitskaya, Yana Kazmirenko, Ukraine

Ukraine may become the 14th European country to allow the use of medical cannabis. Activists are looking forward to the next move – drug policy liberalization.

Ukraine has taken the path of legalizing medical cannabis. In two months, a petition registered on the Ukrainian parliament’s website has collected 25,000 signatures, which makes it mandatory for MPs to review it. According to the petition’s authors, about two million Ukrainian citizens currently have no access to this effective therapy, which can help people with cancer, war veterans and patients in palliative care. Ulana Suprun, acting minister of health of Ukraine, also supports the legalization of medical marijuana. She says that the “rational” use of cannabis for medical purposes is legitimate. It is expected to be made available in pharmacies by prescription.

The draft law may be considered in May-June

The civil society movement for legalizing medical marijuana is led by the NGO 100% Life, the Ukrainian Association of Medical Cannabis, and 16 other civil society organizations.

On 20 March 2019, the relevant parliamentary committee considered the petition but failed to support it as there was no quorum at the session. MPs appealed to the Cabinet of Ministers with a suggestion to amend the current list of narcotic substances, which prohibits the use of cannabis in Ukraine for medical and research purposes. Cannabis would still be considered a narcotic drug but would be allowed for medical use.

“The Human Rights Committee supported the petition. Now MPs have a free hand, they can register a draft law based on the petition,” says one of the authors and leader of 100% Life, Dmitry Sherembey. “There is a group of MPs which supports us. We expect that in May-July the draft law may be registered and considered by the current parliament.” (In autumn Ukraine will hold parliamentary elections – note of editor).

Another author of the petition, Gennadiy Shabas, who heads the Ukrainian Association of Medical Cannabis, says the law should clearly define the rules of using cannabis for medical and research purposes in order to avoid any risks.

Medical marijuana may be used in HIV treatment

There have long been attempts to legalize medical marijuana in Ukraine, but significant progress was achieved only last year when the Ministry of Health openly supported civil society activists. For several years in a row, Cannabis Marches of Freedom have been held in Kyiv, with participants calling on the government to legalize cannabis.

Medical marijuana helps patients with cancer and Alzheimer’s disease, but can also be used for HIV therapy. Apart from the fact that medical cannabis relieves pain, scientists have discovered that people living with HIV who smoke marijuana have higher CD4 counts and lower viral load compared to patients who do not use this kind of therapy. Cannabinoids also help to tolerate opioids, which are often prescribed to AIDS patients. Marijuana prolongs the pain-alleviating effect, improves appetite and prevents tolerance and addiction to “hard” drugs.

Dmitry Sherembey explains that marijuana removes pain syndrome so that the body can direct its resources not at overcoming pain, but at fighting infection. Thus, cannabis not only makes life easier for patients, but it also improves their prognosis for fighting the disease, especially in the case of cancer.

“For instance, even if doctors gave a patient only three months, his prognosis may be improved by up to three years,” he says.

Legalization to reduce stigma

Velta Parkhomenko, the coordinator of the Ukrainian Union of People Who Use Drugs and manager of the NGO Eney Club, thinks that amending legal regulations on the use of medical cannabis is an important step for Ukraine in general, and especially for the community of people who use drugs.

“Legalization of medical cannabis will allow us to accelerate the process of humanizing drug policy. We are convinced that the fewer myths and stereotypes there are around psychoactive substances, the simpler it will be for us to talk about the problems of people who use drugs,” says Velta.

Another argument she offers is that legalizing medical marijuana will reduce stigma and discrimination and reaffirm the widely-recognised fact that drug dependence is not a crime but a chronic, recurring disease.

The activist hopes that the process will not stop with medical cannabis. The next logical steps should be to humanize drug policy, amend the table of maximum allowed quantities of narcotic drugs, and introduce changes in legislation.

Medical marijuana does not alter awareness and does not affect mental states

Medical marijuana is a medicine based on the active components contained in cannabis. The truth is that not all cannabinoids have a narcotic effect. That is why medical marijuana, as opposed to other types of marijuana, does not alter awareness or affect mental states. It may be administered in different ways, such as traditional smoking as well as pills, oils and other pharmaceutical forms.

Today, medical cannabis is mainly brought to Ukraine from neighbouring Poland, where it is sold in pharmacies. However, at present importing cannabinoid-containing medicines to Ukraine is equivalent to drug trafficking.

The ‘Vienna Consensus’ Stifles Progress on UN Drug Policy

The International Drug Policy Consortium (IDPC), a global network of more than 180 NGOs that come together to promote drug policies that are based on human rights, human security, social inclusion and public health, express our disappointment with, and concerns about, the Ministerial Declaration ‘Strengthening our actions at the national, regional and international levels to accelerate the implementation of our joint commitments to address and counter the world drug problem’, adopted today in Vienna by the United Nations.

While we acknowledge that the statement represents limited progress in some areas, we regret that it repeats the mistakes of the past and was negotiated in the absence of a genuine and honest evaluation of the past decade, since the adoption of the 2009 Political Declaration and Action Plan on Drugs.

In the lead up to this Ministerial Segment, IDPC called repeatedly on Member States to formally and honestly evaluate progress made towards the overarching goal, in the 2009 Political Declaration, to significantly reduce or eliminate the illicit drug market, as well as in the implementation of the UNGASS Outcome Document. Unfortunately, a formal and comprehensive review of the past decade of drug policies was not conducted by governments or the UNODC. The lack of appetite for a formal review illustrates the fact that governments are still unable to accept that decades of attempting to eradicate the global illicit drug market through punitive and repressive measures have failed.

In the void left by the lack of such a review, IDPC produced a civil society ‘shadow report’ titled Taking stock: A decade of drug policy which clearly demonstrates the impossibility of credibly claiming any progress made to date, given that the illicit drug market is larger and more robust than ever before, while drug-related and devastating policy harms are on the rise. Ten years ago, the previous UNODC Executive Director, Mr. Costa had already referred to the ‘unintended negative consequences’ of drug control as part of the previous 10-year review – that paper is unfortunately as relevant today as it was ten years ago.

Ahead of the 2019 Ministerial Segment, the IDPC network had developed four policy recommendations which remain relevant for our assessment of the Ministerial Declaration adopted today.

Read full statement in English here.

Source: www.idpc.net

People who Use Drugs Deserve Love, Respect and Support

Author: Grana Ziia, AFEW-Kyrgyzstan

Sergey Bessonov from Bishkek is the head of the organization that protects the rights of people who use drugs (PWUD) – “Harm Reduction Network Association” (HRNA). Sergey himself used drugs in the past. However, he admits that everyone has the right to make his own choice whether to stop using drugs or not.

Now Sergey dedicates his life to the community of people who use drugs. In his interview with AFEW-Kyrgyzstan, Sergey is talking about the challenges of the community of people who use drugs in Kyrgyzstan, drug policy and his future plans. Below are some of Sergey’s thoughts in direct speech.

About the desire to be heard

For a long time, the problem of drug use was solved by using strict bans: prisons, fines, and information that PWUDs are no longer members of our society, that they are somehow bad, dangerous… I myself know a lot of people who died from the overdose, I saw people who spent most of their lives in prisons for using soft drugs. These people were left without work, housing and the possibility to live the life they wanted to.

Now in Kyrgyzstan, the government started to understand that a progressive drug policy cannot be built without a community. However, it is very important for us that the community participation in the development of programs was not just for show. We want our opinion to be respected, considered and trusted. We need the possibility of professional growth.

About the professional growth

The project “Bridging the Gaps: Health and Rights for Key Populations” (BtG) started to help us a few years ago. Over the past two years, this project gave people from the community the possibility to take part in trainings on negotiation skills, legal monitoring by the community, analysis of regulatory legal acts.

These trainings helped us to develop some of our skills. Using this knowledge, people from our community started to develop their own organisations, participate in working groups with governmental representatives and implement advocacy programs.

About the new drug policy

Last year, our country started talking about changes in criminal and administrative codes. Governmental representatives finally understood that sending people who use drugs to prison instead of rehabilitation and harm reduction programs is ineffective and cruel.

During the analyses of new regulatory acts that HRNA conducted with the support of the BtG project and AFEW-Kyrgyzstan, we found some negative changes. For example, new amendments, which now started to work, increased the fine for carrying and possession of drugs twice. The new fine is unaffordable, which means that people will again be imprisoned. Now we are negotiating with international and state structures, with other NGOs and explaining to them why this novelty needs to be revised.

BtG also provided us with an opportunity to conduct focus groups among PWUDs. We found out that not all people are aware of the new laws. This creates extortion and corruption. Now we are constantly monitoring new cases of detention of drug users and support people who use drugs.

About the alternative to prisons

According to the new offense code of Kyrgyzstan, alternative punishment that is called probation is provided for people who use drugs and who have committed any kind of offense. Therefore, now a person has an opportunity to avoid prison.

The initiative itself is very good and we now have a lot of work for its successful implementation. We have already come to the agreement with several probation services and they are letting us know if a person who uses drugs came to them.

HRNA also plans to work with judges to explain that we should punish people only for offenses, not for using drugs. People in our country still have many stereotypes towards people who use drugs. These stereotypes can influence judges’ decisions about sending a drug user to prison or probation.

About the needs of the community

People who use drugs almost always remain alone. Parents turn away from them, doctors reject to help, friends betray them, mass media use offensive words, police suspect them in all crimes. Sometimes we become the only home and friend for each other. With our examples, we show that people who use drugs deserve love and respect.

To help our community to be strong and united, the BtG project is supporting our dialogue platform. Thanks to this, we can meet, discuss and stay united. I feel that the community is getting stronger and more confident with years passing by.

Together we build a liberal healthy future in Kyrgyzstan, where every person can get help and fulfill their potential.

AFEW-Kyrgyzstan Uses the Experience of Foreign Colleagues

216 adolescents were registered for using psychoactive substances in 2017, according to the Narcology Center in Bishkek. Representatives of the police services in Bishkek stated that there is also a high possibility that 1,031 teenagers, who were registered for committing different offences in 2018, had an experience of using psychoactive substances or are at a high risk of starting to do so. However, this data does not show the real situation. In Kyrgyzstan, there are still no complete official data on the exact number of adolescents who use psychoactive substances.

This is related to several factors. One of them is that the drug policy of the country is still strict and aimed to punish. Parents and children who face the problem of using psychoactive substances are afraid of getting help from medical specialists because the doctors will add teenager’s name to the special database. In the future, being in this database will not allow this teenager to be enrolled at the university or to get a high-paid job.

Another issue is that the country is lacking ways to support such adolescents. There is also a lack of a comprehensive program for the prevention of drug use among teenagers. The combination of all these factors does not allow the country’s specialists to work effectively with adolescents and to carry out preventive work.

Bridging the Gaps: health and rights of key populations (BtG) project, implemented by AFEW-Kyrgyzstan, intends to apply international experience to help adolescents who use psychoactive substances in Kyrgyzstan. BtG has regional exchange platforms, where specialists from EECA can share with each other their experience concerning harm reduction and rehabilitation issues. It helps the project to meet contemporary challenges. AFEW-Kyrgyzstan is aiming at creating a multifunctional mechanism that will help adolescents who use psychoactive substances and a professional system for preventive teenagers from using it.

The protocol is approved by the Ministry of Health

The clinical protocol ‘Mental and behavioural disorders due to the usage of new psychoactive substances among children and adolescents’ was developed with the support of AFEW-Kyrgyzstan and approved by the Ministry of Health in 2017. Professional narcologists and members of the community of people who use psychoactive drugs and other specialists developed the protocol.

“The developed clinical protocol gives the recommendations to emergency medical doctors, toxicologists, family doctors, resuscitators, psychiatrists and narcologists,” says Elmira Kaliyeva, a participant of the working group that developed the protocol.

Having developed the protocol, AFEW-Kyrgyzstan began trainings for narcologists, doctors of family medicine centres, teachers of the Kyrgyz State Medical Institute for post graduates and juvenile inspectors in Bishkek and Osh.

Working for the future

The representatives of the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) got interested in the protocol too and the BtG work and approached AFEW-Kyrgyzstan with a proposal to teach doctors in remote areas of Bishkek to work with this protocol. The proposal of UNICEF gave the opportunity to expand the circle of specialists familiar with the protocol. In addition, this cooperation will allow AFEW-Kyrgyzstan to be confident that all the work done in the framework of the BtG project will continue in the country for many years.

Waiting for the city hall’s help

Establishing cooperation with government partners to ensure stable and long-term support for adolescents who use drugs was the next task of the project. In June 2018, within BtG project, AFEW-Kyrgyzstan supported a round table organized by the city administration for the presentation of the Comprehensive City Program Prevention of Juvenile Offenses for 2018-2020.

Deputies promised to consider the proposed Comprehensive City Program which also includes recommendations that were listed in the developed clinical protocol. The adoption of the program will allow to create a cross-sectorial system of cooperation in the country, where the various departments can work together and redirect children who use psychoactive substances to help them as efficiently as possible.

Opening a centre for teenagers

The round table also became a platform for discussing the urgent need of opening a specialized centre to support children and adolescents who use psychoactive substances.

“We are in favour of building a modern centre that is capable of providing quality support to adolescents and is able to give parents verified and necessary information. This centre will become a model for working with adolescents from a key group as well as an educational and methodological centre for social pedagogues, juvenile inspectors and psychologists,” says Natalya Shumskaya, head of AFEW-Kyrgyzstan.

Taking into consideration that Kyrgyzstan’s culture is very traditional, there is a common misconception that people who use psychoactive substances are not good members of the society. This stigma leads to several issues. For example, teenagers are scared to talk with someone about the use of psychoactive substances. They are afraid of being expelled from the school or being suspected in crimes only due to their experience of using psychoactive substances.

“The center is also going to work on increasing the level of acceptance of psychoactive substances use among the society. This will lead to more effective support from the side of adults and to less risky behavior of adolescents as they got all proper information they need. It is the first step that can lead to final abstinence,” says Chinara Imankulova, manager of BtG project in AFEW-Kyrgyzstan.

AFEW-Kyrgyzstan specialists already developed a project of such centre. The centre will also work with those who have never used psychoactive substances and with children who are in high risk of starting using them. The prevention work will include helping teenagers to organize their leisure activity and to give them information that usage of psychoactive substances is not shameful, however it is important to ask yourself whether you are aware of the risks and if you really want to do so, to find solid information and to ask for help of professionals.

Creating the centre and the approval of the Comprehensive City Program will help thousands of teenagers to make healthy choices for a happy life.

Under 16 and Above: Protecting the Rights of Adolescents and Preventing HIV

Author: Yana Kazmirenko, Ukraine

Shortage of HIV prevention programmes for young people was one of the key topics discussed at the 22nd International AIDS Conference (AIDS 2018). At the conference, AFEW-Ukraine presented its best practices in HIV response among young people. Since 2012, it has been supporting the initiatives aimed at most-at-risk adolescents within the Bridging the Gaps: Health and Rights for Key Populations project funded by the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Gaps analysis

Over the course of project implementation, social welfare centres for adolescents who use psychoactive substances were established in Kharkiv, Poltava, Kropyvnytskyi and Chernivtsi and a rehabilitation day care centre for such young people was opened in Chernivtsi. In 2017 only, over 12 hundred adolescents received 21,290 services in those four cities.

Olena Voskresenska, Director of AFEW-Ukraine, recalls that when the project just started, a gap analysis was conducted. It turned out that there were a lot of programmes for adults who use drugs, while few donors were supporting similar activities for adolescents. It was considered that this population does not make a considerable contribution to the HIV epidemic. Thus, both most-at-risk adolescents and generally schoolchildren and students of vocational training centres remained out of focus.

“Of all the countries involved in Bridging the Gaps project, Ukraine is unique in terms of the activities implemented for under-age drug users. We work with non-injecting drug users trying to prevent them from switching to injecting drugs,” says Olena.

Children do not use drugs

One of the main achievements of AFEW-Ukraine is developing a tool to monitor the violations of human rights of most-at-risk adolescents. Questionnaires are used to collect data on adolescents’ rights violations, providing urgent response and legal support. Iryna Nerubaieva, AFEW-Ukraine Project Manager, thinks that in the Ukrainian society there is a strong belief: children cannot use drugs and they do not use them.

“This community is invisible and unheard. Most often, adolescents do not know about their rights, do not know that they have any rights or how these rights are to be protected,” says Iryna.

Adolescents – mostly high schoolers and students of vocational training centres – are brought to the community centres by their friends. Often they are referred by social welfare institutions, departments of juvenile services and even police.

Currently, AFEW-Ukraine works in four cities of Ukraine: Kharkiv, Chernivtsi, Kropyvnytskyi and Poltava. Besides, thanks to the cooperation with Alliance for Public Health, since 2017 the activities for adolescents, including monitoring of human rights violations, have been conducted in five more cities of Ukraine.

Testing as a prevention tool

At the conference, Yevheniia Kuvshynova, Executive Director of Convictus Ukraine, implementing partner of AFEW-Ukraine and Alliance for Public Health, told about the Voice of Adolescents project, which covers 717 adolescents.

The Underage, Overlooked: Improving Access to Integrated HIV Services for Adolescents Most at Risk in Ukraine project is aimed at teenagers who use drugs and live in small towns and villages in seven regions of Ukraine. Adolescents from Kyiv attend the Street Power youth club. In this club, teenagers who use psychoactive substances and practice risky injecting and sexual behaviours can watch films, play computer games and receive social support.

According to Yevheniia, most of them use non-injecting drugs and HIV testing for them is rather a prevention tool. So far, no HIV cases have been detected. Adolescents are tested for hepatitis C and B as well as sexually transmitted infections.

For many years, Convictus has been working with adults who inject drugs providing services to 11 thousand people. Working with adolescents is different: they are tested only starting from 14 years of age, with a social worker and a doctor involved.

“One of our priorities is building a network and a map of services, so that adolescents could go to any organization of the network and receive services from our partners. If a person coming to us needs more in-depth support, we provide such support and also help him or her with clothes as we maintain a clothing bank,” tells Yevheniia.

Convictus is planning to develop a School of Leadership and a sexual health programme for girls, which are to close more gaps in the system of HIV prevention among most-at-risk adolescents in Ukraine.

‘Bridging the Gaps’ through the eyes of teenagers

In 2011-2017, over eight thousand clients received 70,232 medical, psychological, social and legal services within ‘Bridging the Gaps: Health and Rights for Key Populations’ project in Ukraine. Halyna, Artem and Carl (names changed) were also clients of ‘Bridging the Gaps: Health and Rights for Key Populations’ project.

Resolving problems with the family

Halyna is 19 years old. She is a slim girl with beautiful eyes and a charming smile. Halyna was born in a small Ukrainian town bordering with Moldova. She has been living with a man she loves for a year. A month ago, they got married.

However, just two years ago, Halyna’s life was neither easy nor happy. Back then, she lived with her mother and stepfather and was a constant victim of abuse. Halyna’s stepfather did not want the girl to live with them, so was turning his wife against her own daughter. Halyna, who was still a minor, had to leave her home, find a job and make her own living. The girl started using drugs – first marijuana, then amphetamine, sometimes ecstasy or LSD. It lasted for a few months.

Once, when the girl told her mother everything. Talking about that period of her life, Halyna cannot hold her tears back.

“When I came back home, I was not quite adequate and had hysterics. Once, my stepfather called police and they took me away. They sent me to a juvenile shelter in Chernivtsi. I spent two months there. At first, it was difficult, and I wanted out of there as soon as possible, but when I went back home to my family, it was even worse. My stepfather abused me and made my mother do the same,” tells the girl.

The psychologist working in the shelter referred Halyna to the Dialogue Centre of Social and Psychological Support (New Family Foundation), implementing ‘Bridging the Gaps: Health and Rights for Key Populations’ project. Three times a week, Halyna attended counselling sessions with a psychologist and a social worker there. Besides, the girl, her mother and stepfather took part in family group conferences. The approach of family group conferences stipulates that a child may not be viewed separately from the family, so family members should be involved in solving child’s problems. Halyna says that it helped to maintain relations in her family for a while.

“Later, as my legal age was approaching, my mother and stepfather said that they did not want me to live with them. Our problems resumed, and I went back to drugs. After I turned 18, I had to move out,” tells the girl.

Despite the challenges, Halyna continued coming to the Centre for support and soon was able to quit drugs. She attended the Centre for about eight months. The girl says that for her, the Centre was a safe place and people working there helped her a lot. Halyna thinks that it is quite possible that if not for this support, she would still be using drugs.

Coming home for Mom’s birthday

Artem from Kropyvnytskyi is 22. He lives with his family – his parents, sister and grandmother. The young man says that he likes mountains, nature, rock-climbing and drugs.

When Artem was a teenager, he started taking alcohol, smoking cigarettes and then tried drugs for the first time. He confesses that he was not happy with his life and wanted to escape the reality, so he started “systematically” using drugs. Crystal meth, LSD, ecstasy and so on – he used everything except injecting drugs. It lasted for over four years.

Then his family intervened. Artem’s uncle suggested he should visit a psychologist from Lilia social bureau (NGO Return to Life). Psychologist’s counselling, awareness-raising classes, school of volunteers – all those things became part of the young man’s life.

However, just in several months he went back to drugs and had to start everything from scratch. Later, Artem spent three months in the rehabilitation centre run by the Return to Life NGO. He came back home last autumn, on his mother’s birthday.

“If it were not for this project and the social bureau, I would probably still be an active drug user. Maybe I would even end up in jail,” says Artem.

He became an active volunteer of the organization. Campaigns, workshops, summer school, working on his own project – all those things interest him and are an important part of his life. He has no desire to go back to drugs.

Drugs bring an illusion of the solution

Nineteen-year-old Carl is a second-year psychology student from the western region of Ukraine. He has parents and an older sister. Carl enjoys learning new things and likes history, especially military history. A year ago, he experienced some problems and his friends offered him a “way out” – together with them, he started using drugs.

“At first, I liked it, it felt exciting. Then I realized that drugs only bring me new problems. I grew addicted to drugs, could not communicate with people in a normal way, it interfered with my studies. When I understood that it all turns out to be a problem, I came to the Centre,” says Carl.

He heard about the Dialogue Centre a year and a half ago. Project workers regularly come to student dormitories and tell young people about HIV, drugs, safe sex, test them for HIV and hepatitis, distribute condoms.

“I lost many friends and acquaintances. Sometimes even my fellow students rejected me and called me a drug addict. I am a human, so when the society turns its back on me, it is very painful,” he recalls.

In the Centre, there was a psychologist who worked with Carl for six months. Embarrassed, Carl tells that he opened up during those counselling sessions and even cried. He says that the psychologist helped him to keep his life from going to pieces. Besides, in the Centre he could eat a meal and spend his leisure time.

“I know for sure what would happen to me if not for this Centre and this project. There was a friend of mine in the dormitory, who had a “point of no return”: he switched to hard injecting drugs, was kicked out of the dormitory and then – out of the university. It is quite probable that it would be the same with me,” says Carl.

The problems, which led the young man to drug use, are still there, but he realized that drugs do not resolve them, only bringing an illusion of solution. He is sure that every person should understand it.

About the project

‘Bridging the Gaps: Health and Rights for Key Populations’ is an international project, which was launched in Ukraine in 2011 and is aimed at protecting the human rights of drug users by changing social attitudes and government policies and improving the services they can access. The main activities are aimed at under-age drug users. Four partner organizations provide services to adolescents in four cities: Return to Life CF in Kropyvnytskyi, Public Health PRCF in Poltava, Blago CF in Kharkiv and New Family CF in Chernivtsi.

In Chernivtsi, there is a rehabilitation centre, while in other cities the services are provided through social bureaus and day care centres. The efforts are aimed at reducing the risks of drug use, re-establishing social connections and finding resources in the lives of adolescents to support them. The most important task for project workers is to make adolescents understand that in the centres they will be welcomed and will not be judged because of their drug habits.

‘Bridging the Gaps’ in Georgian Provinces

Gocha lives in a small town of Telavi

Author: Irma Kakhurashvili, Georgia

Gocha and Nikoloz are clients of ‘Bridging the Gaps: Health and Rights for Key Populations’ project in Georgia.

Art therapy works

Gocha lives in the hottest region of Georgia – Kakheti – in a small town of Telavi. He is a client of a Rehabilitation Centre in Gremi village. There he receives support to overcome his alcohol and substance use problems.

The Rehabilitation Centre for drug users run by Tanadgoma is the first and only stationary rehabilitation centre in the country offering free services to its clients. Since it was founded, over 25 clients received help free of charge there. In the Centre, clients can get social, psychological and health services. The Centre applies twelve-step recovery programme. Besides, it offers art therapy classes and even runs a ceramic workshop. The instructors working in the Centre were trained in a Ukraine-based rehab.

As many of his friends, Gocha used to smoke “harmless weed” since he was a schoolboy. Soon enough, he found himself among people who were eager to use other drugs as well. At first, he was curious to experiment with substances, but during the heroin boom in Georgia – when it could be purchased even in the Kakheti villages – the situation changed. If Gocha was lacking money to buy drugs, he had enough to get some alcohol. Gocha’s family knew about his problems. His parents told him that he would find himself in a trouble, but it did not help. After the government introduced stricter rules for drug dealers and users, Gocha switched to the homemade drugs.

He first came to the Tanadgoma Rehabilitation Centre two years ago. Gocha took part in the twelve-step recovery programme, attended counselling sessions and art therapy classes. Currently, the man is in remission, but sometimes he comes back to the Centre seeking services. He says that sometimes he drinks alcohol. Georgia is the motherland of wine, so it is hard to quit alcohol.

“I do not know what would happen to me if not for this project. Now working with clay and ceramics is the biggest joy for me. There is a radio set in the workshop and I can work all night long, listening to music. I have a lot of creative insights and the process of work is very important for me. When I draw sketches, I think of nothing else. My negative thoughts go away,” he tells.

Gocha does not know if he will be able to quit drugs and alcohol for good. There are no guarantees, but at least now he understands how to reduce the harm he does to his health. Gocha finds his support in knowing that if he goes home and has a relapse again, he can always come back to the Centre or contact harm reduction programmes.

Sometimes small tours are organized for the clients of the Centre. This region of Georgia is famous for its historical sights and beautiful nature.

“Sounds of the river calm me down. There I can think about my life. I spent 11 years behind the bars and I have many regrets… Now there are a lot of pharmacy drugs in Georgia, many people need psychosocial support… I do not understand why the government does not want to implement rehabilitation and employment programmes instead of the repressive drug policies. It does not want to be responsible for such people as me. So far, the Centre is the only place where someone cares about my mental health,” says Gocha.

He has two dreams: to equip the Rehabilitation Centre with exercise equipment for its clients to stay fit so that they are able to start a family.

“I want my empty house in Telavi to be full of child laughter and hope. I want to live a normal life,” says Gocha.

Drug use changed my life

Nikoloz is a former police officer

Nikoloz is 45 years old. He is a former police officer. His professional career ended up when he was arrested for drug use and sentenced to seven years of imprisonment. Before that day, he had no problems.

“I was 18 when my friend and I tried drugs for the first time. Little by little, I got used to drugs. My brother also did drugs, but I was afraid to tell him. I felt uncomfortable to talk about it with my family. Then I studied law, started working in police and that is when I got really “hooked.” I had powerful relatives, so I felt safe, but after eight years of active drug use I was locked up,” remembers Nikoloz.

Seven years in prison were a dreadful, lost period of his life. Then it was easy to get drugs in closed settings and Nikoloz used this opportunity. However, one case of severe overdose, when he almost died, made him rethink this situation. After he got back home, all his social connections were lost.

“Then I thought that it was enough, I had to stop. Even now, I hate drugs with all my heart. I fight them and fight myself. Last year I had a relapse. Therefore, I had to enrol into a substitution therapy programme and receive treatment in a clinic,” confesses Nikoloz.

He feels sorry because drugs changed his life but says that if years ago he had access to harm reduction programmes, he would definitely enrol in them. Back then, he knew little about reducing the risks of drug use.

“I had no strength or desire to quit drugs, but I would surely use them in a safer way, for example decreasing the frequency of injections. I would be able to control my life and health and would avoid overdose and hepatitis C. Drugs will always be there. Non-medical use of drugs is bad for everybody – the individual and the society – so protection of public health requires protection of drug users’ health. For that purpose, drug users should be integrated into the society and not isolated,” says Nikoloz.

In jail, Nikoloz got acquainted with people working for Tanadgoma, who offered different services to the inmates, in particular, psychological support, which was very important for him.

After Nikoloz was released, he went to a social bureau in Tbilisi. Tea Chakhrakia, working for Tanadgoma, helped him to re-issue his documents. Besides, people from Tanadgoma helped him to get a job with Akhali Gza NGO providing harm reduction services to people who use drugs. Since then, Nikoloz has been working as a social worker there. For him, his job is not only his responsibility, but also his real family, where he is loved and respected, and such love and respect are mutual.

Nikoloz is convinced that harm reduction services are more effective than incarceration. The best approach to resolve drug-related problems is to work with people who use drugs and not punish them.

“In our country, drug policy is based on some Utopian ideas because the government thinks that the drug use may be eradicated. In Georgia, criminal justice is the only method to solve the problems of injecting drug use. Drug use is treated as a criminal offence, though there is a strong evidence proving that repressive drug policies are ineffective and prevent access of people who use drugs to health services,” says Nikoloz.

Nikoloz is happy to share his experience with junior outreach workers. He works with clients, motivating them to get tested, helps them to prepare all the required documents, develops support plans, and tells people about safer drug use methods.

“I am really grateful to the project for the job that I have, which helps me feel that people need me. I received help one day, and now I can help others, sharing my experience with them. My clients are people who use drugs. Many of them use drugs only to overcome their withdrawal syndrome. They are the ones who really need support. I want them to understand what is waiting for them ahead,” he says.

Nikoloz says that with support of harm reduction experts many good things may be done for people who have already lost any hope. That is why it is important to implement the projects, which meet the specific needs of vulnerable populations.

“I am glad that in prison I met people who saw my potential and believed in me,” he says.

About the project

Bridging the Gaps: Health and Rights for Key Populations‘ is an international project implemented in 16 countries of the world to improve the health and protect the rights of vulnerable populations. In Georgia, the project was launched in September 2012. Its main goal is protecting human rights of drug users by changing social attitudes and government policies and improving the quality of services delivered and access to them.

In Georgia, the project is implemented by Bemoni Public Union and Tanadgoma Centre for Information and Counselling on Reproductive Health. Bemoni provides services in the social bureau based in Telavi (Kakheti), and Tanadgoma – in the social bureau based in Tbilisi. Besides, in 2015 Tanadgoma opened a Rehabilitation Centre for people who use drugs in the Gremi village, Kakheti.

In 2012-2017, over four thousand people who use drugs received 17,321 medical, psychological, social and legal services within the project.

AIDS 2018: Engaging Young People who use Drugs in the HIV and Human Rights Response in Ukraine

Source: www.aids2018.org

Ukraine presented its experience in engaging young people who use drugs in the HIV and human rights response during International AIDS Conference AIDS 2018 in Amsterdam. Organisations ACO “Convictus Ukraine”, ICF “AIDS Foundation East-West” (AFEW-Ukraine), CF “Return to Life” and CF “KCF “Blago” shared the results of their work.

Club for teenagers

The main purpose of the activity in the framework of the PITCH project is to prevent the spread of HIV and other dangerous diseases among vulnerable adolescents and to develop healthy lifestyle habits, the director of “Convictus Ukraine” Yevheniia Kuvshynova is saying.

In their work, “Convictus” team is actively using mobile clinic where they provide services for teenagers. A multidisciplinary team is operating on the basis of a mobile clinic. The mobile clinic helps them to bring the services to those who are not covered with prevention and treatment programs. There is also a school of leaders and a Street power youth club, where teenagers can spend their leisure time and receive help from psychologist or social workers, get information, medical services, testing, etc. Around 500 teenagers received services in the club.

Accepted the monitoring tool

Iryna Nerubaieva

The project manager of the ICF “AIDS Foundation East-West” (AFEW-Ukraine) Iryna Nerubaieva shared the results of the piloting of the tool for monitoring the violations of human rights of most-at-risk adolescents which was developed and implemented in the framework of the project Bridging the Gaps: Health and Rights for Key Populations. From January till December 2017 in four pilot cities, 792 interviews with adolescents and youth aged 14-21 were conducted. 430 adolescents were 14-18 years old. The number of cases of human rights violations registered in an online form was 92 of all surveyed. A young activist of the CF “Return to Life” Daria Kopyevska, a social worker of the CF “KCF “Blago”Alina Khokhlova and a lawyer and AFEW-Ukraine’s consultant Vita Musatenko also shared their experience.

“It is good to see that teenagers realized why they need this tool, and how social workers accepted it. Now they know how that it will help in their work,” Vita Musatenko is saying.

According to the latest estimates, the number of most-at-risk adolescents is 129 000, including 21 700 injection drug users. However, there is no official data on the exact number of most-at-risk adolescents, including underage drug users. In Ukraine, most-at-risk adolescents represent a very closed group, thus the lack of statistical data, stigma, discrimination and legal barriers make their access to HIV/STI services more complicated.

 

Study of Sex Workers’ Behaviour in Georgia

Author: Irma Kakhurashvili, Georgia

Gabriela, a 40-year-old sex worker from Tbilisi has not been tested for HIV since 2016. She is convinced that she does not have HIV. She also thinks that she knows everything about this virus. However, when asked if HIV is transmitted by mosquitoes, she says ‘yes’. In July, Gabriela is going to the bustling resort city of Batumi to earn some extra money.

“I do not think that I will get tested for HIV anytime soon as I have got a lot of work and do not have free time. Besides, from Batumi I plan to relocate to Turkey,” says the woman.

Gabriela did not participate in the recent research conducted in two cities of Georgia – Tbilisi and Batumi – to study risky and safe behaviours of sex workers.

No major changes

The Tanadgoma Centre for Information and Counselling on Reproductive Health is the first Georgian organization, which has been studying the HIV transmission among sex workers since 2002. The recent study held in 2017 covered 350 women: 200 from Tbilisi and 150 from Batumi. The goal of the researchers was to determine the prevalence of HIV, hepatitis C, gonorrhoea and syphilis among people involved in sex work. Besides, they were able to analyse the key risks associated with HIV and to collect valuable information for advocacy and policy development. The research study was conducted with the support of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, the Curatio International Foundation and the Infectious Diseases, AIDS and Clinical Immunology Research Centre.

The study confirmed that 85% of women in Tbilisi and 97.3% in Batumi know about the existence of HIV/AIDS, but only 11.5% of respondents in Tbilisi and 23.4% in Batumi gave correct answers to questions about the HIV transmission. For example, some respondents like Gabriela did not know that HIV is not transmitted through the bites of mosquitoes. In general, the respondents from Tbilisi were less aware of HIV if compared to the ones from Batumi.

Georgian researchers say that there have not been major changes in the study outcomes since 2012. For instance, most women mention condoms as the main measure of protection against HIV.

The study results showed that the indicators of condom use during most recent sexual intercourse with a commercial partner have not changed in the recent 10 years (over 90% in both cities). However, sex workers rarely use condoms with their regular clients.

“I do not use condoms with my regular clients to show that I trust them, but I definitely use them with other clients. I have to suffer offences because of this, but I know that it is a sure way to protect your health,” says Gabriela.

Sex work in Georgia is illegal and often police will confiscate condoms if they decide that a woman could be doing sex work.

Sex-workers and drugs

The research study showed that sex workers are well aware of HIV transmission when sharing needles and syringes. Besides, the recent study showed some interesting results concerning drug use. The share of sex-workers who used non-injecting drugs in the last 12 months was 11% in Tbilisi and 20% in Batumi. The most widely used non-injecting drugs were sleeping pills and sedatives in Tbilisi and marijuana in Batumi.

As for the injecting drugs, 1.5% of respondents in Tbilisi and 3.3% in Batumi injected drugs in the recent 12 months The respondents used ‘vint’, ‘jeff’ and amphetamines in Tbilisi and heroin in Batumi.

“Before, we did not have such data for sex-workers,” says Nino Tsereteli, researcher and head of Tanadgoma.

Women are getting out of sight

Gabriela says that she does not inject drugs but takes some pills. The woman has no problem to buy them in a pharmacy and uses substances at least once a week.

“The issue of drugs became relevant to this key population as well. We have been working with sex-workers for 20 years in five cities in Georgia and cover 3,000 people with our services annually. As for HIV/AIDS, during the period when we conducted the study only three women in Tbilisi were diagnosed with HIV. What is bad is that sometimes as soon as a woman learns that she has HIV, she is getting out of our sight and we do not know where she is and if she continues working with clients,” says Nino Tsereteli.

Gabriela promises that in September she will get tested for HIV with the help of Tanadgoma. She is not going to change her lifestyle, but she wants to know if everything is all right with her health. In Tanadgoma, she will get recommendations not only about HIV because, according to Nino Tsereteli, another problem of sex workers in Georgia is violence. Sex workers do not always know how they can organize themselves to protect their rights, health and lives. In Tanadgoma, they can get knowledge and support of professional lawyers.