For people living with HIV in Belarus

Since July 19, 2019, a new version of article 157 “Transmission of Human Immunodeficiency Virus” of the Criminal Code of Belarus has been enforced. Despite the approved amendments to this article, it still contributes to vulnerability of the key populations, in particular serodiscordant couples (where one of the partners has HIV). However, a solution has been found, thanks to which the amendment will be able to serve for the benefit of people living with HIV.

For reference

There is a number of important provisions in the new version of article 157 of the Criminal Code of Belarus.

  • Knowingly exposing another person to HIV is punished with a fine or an arrest or imprisonment for up to three years.
  • If an individual, who knows about being infected with HIV, transmits HIV to another person recklessly or with indirect intent, this offense is punished with imprisonment for the term from two to seven years.
  • The action stipulated by the second part of this article committed against two or more persons, or a person who is known to be a minor, or with direct intent, is punished with imprisonment for the term from five to 13 years.

Besides, the amendment to this article says that the individual committing the actions stipulated in the first and second parts of the article may be relieved from the criminal liability in case if the other person, who was exposed to HIV or was infected with HIV, had been in advance warned about the fact that such individual had HIV and voluntarily agreed to perform any acts, which led to HIV exposure.

Avoiding prosecution

Before this amendment was enforced, the People PLUS Republican Public Association in cooperation with the Republican Center for Hygiene and Epidemiology held a round table to develop a set of measures, which would allow people to fully use the amendments in laws and protect themselves from the criminal prosecution. It resulted in the development of a road map and other documents regulating the fact of warning, which would lead to the enforcement of this amendment. Such documents include.

– New form “How to warn another person that I have HIV”

– Form to warn a contact person of a patient with HIV

– Memo on HIV prevention

Anatoliy Leshenok, Director of the People PLUS Republican Public Association

“When preparing the documents, we tried to take into account any possible circumstances and potential barriers,” says Anatoliy Leshenok, Deputy Director of the People PLUS Republican Public Association. “For example, the Investigative Committee, commenting on the amendment, pointed out that it is important to understand what is the procedure to check in which state an individual gave his or her consent to have a contact with a person living with HIV, to check if he or she had enough information, etc. The Notary Chamber suggested to register informed consent as a confirmation of consent for the contact with a person living with HIV. The Republican Center for Hygiene and Epidemiology developed a new notification form to be used when registering people with HIV diagnoses for follow-up, provided explanations on the amendment to article 157 of the Criminal Code of Belarus and told that it is possible to come to them with a partner to register the fact of warning of HIV exposure. A memo on HIV notification has also been developed and will be published within our project. It will be given to the partners of HIV-positive people. The memo contains contact details of the organizations providing services to PLWH as well as legal consultations.”

Who is at risk?

In the recent 6 months, there were 55 criminal cases initiated in Belarus based on article 157 of the Criminal Code. This number is similar to the one that was registered in 2018. However, it should be noted that 28 cases out of this total number were opened based on the first part of this article, where there is no fact of HIV transmission, but only a perceived risk.

“Recently, we were defense witnesses at a court hearing, when the defendant was charged with putting five sexual partners at risk of HIV,” tells Anatoliy. “The defendant did not transmit HIV to any of those partners – he took ARVs and had an undetectable viral load. The court took into the consideration the scientific consensus statement on HIV transmission, the answer of a WHO representative and the reply from the Professor of the Infectious Disease Department of the Belarus State University on the risk of HIV transmission by a person with suppressed viral load. However, the verdict of the court was that there was still a risk of HIV transmission, so the sentence remained unchanged – 18 months at standard regime penal colony. Just imagine – 18 months of imprisonment for not transmitting HIV to anyone!”

In fact, article 157 put a question mark over the existence of serodiscordant couples, who often live together for many years and even have children. Usually, within such criminal cases charges are brought against a husband or a wife, while the “victim” clearly states in court that he or she has no complaints to the spouse and that he or she was consciously taking risk to conceive a child with a loved one.

Drawbacks of this article also relate to the fact that criminal cases are initiated with no complaints from the victim.

“When making amendments in article 157, we were suggesting more radical changes – to fully exclude responsibility for exposure to HIV from this article – but the society is so far not ready for such changes,” continued Anatoliy. “Currently, the cases initiated based on this article are reviewed, where the sentences directly state that the partner was informed about HIV and consciously agreed to the actions, which led to HIV transmission or exposure to HIV. According to the Code of Criminal Procedure, the review of such cases is initiated by penal colonies and prisons, and if a person is not imprisoned, such person should file a relevant request for review with a court.”

First successes

Approval of the amendment to article 157 of the Criminal Code “Transmission of HIV” together with the set of enforcement measures, which were implemented through the grant from the Emergency Support Fund for Key Populations in Eastern Europe and Central Asia (EECA), allowed talking about the first successes of the activists in HIV response in Belarus. Now hundreds of people can have the record of their conviction expunged, with many more who will be able to avoid criminal prosecution.

Kazakhstan: Reducing Stigma and Pills – Improving Adherence to Treatment

Author: Oksana Maklakova, Russia

In early May, Kazakhstan presented and discussed a new concept of providing antiretroviral treatment (ART) to people living with HIV. The concept will be implemented in 2021–2025. Of Kazakhstan’s 19,384 patients registered in HIV care in 2018, 77% are on ART. This quite high indicator gives Kazakh doctors and civil society activists hope that the UN 90/90/90 targets will be achieved in the country.

One-stop shop approach

“Of course, there is a problem with adherence to treatment in Kazakhstan. Treatment regimens change not only because some patients are resistant to certain drugs and need new combinations, but because sometimes there are interruptions in the supply of certain drugs. Optimized treatment regimens and improved quality of treatment as an objective was included in the new strategy by UNICEF and the Kazakh Scientific Centre of Dermatology and Infectious Diseases. NGOs are also working towards achieving this objective. For example, reduction to just eight universal and effective treatment regimens is planned,” says Lyubov Vorontsova, project coordinator of the Central Asian Association of People Living with HIV.

Since 2017, Kazakhstan has been implementing a “test and treat” strategy. In line with WHO guidelines, antiretroviral treatment is prescribed and provided to patients on the same day they are diagnosed with HIV, without waiting for immune status or viral load indicators. Procurement of antiretroviral drugs (ARVs) is regulated and funded by the government. However, access to ART is still a crucial issue in remote areas of Kazakhstan.

“Last year we monitored adherence to treatment in different cities of Kazakhstan. We wanted to find out, firstly, why people are afraid to start therapy, and secondly, why people drop out after they start ART. The first thing we heard is that people are scared of side effects (though in this regard modern drugs are much better than older ones). People also mentioned treatment fatigue, as ART is a life-long therapy. However, there are also remote areas where people have problems with physically accessing the drugs as they live 300 kilometres away from the AIDS centre and do not always have time and money to go and pick up their medications,” says Vorontsova.

Quitting therapy after the baby is born

People living with HIV (PLWH) in Kazakhstan, as in many other countries of eastern Europe and central Asia, are concerned about the quality of ARVs. Kazakhstan is gradually transitioning to modern regimens which are easier to tolerate, have almost no side effects and, most importantly, are more convenient to take. The biggest challenge for both doctors and civil society activists is stigma, self-stigma and discrimination.

Project coordinator of the Central Asian Association of People Living with HIV Lyubov Vorontsova

“We often hear stories about people who are afraid to take pills at work as someone may see them. There have been cases when colleagues saw a person taking ARVs, then checked the name of the drug on the internet and found out that this person had HIV. As a result, he or she was fired. Of course, such incidents have a negative impact on adherence to treatment,” comments Vorontsova.

There are also problems with the information pregnant women with HIV receive in antenatal clinics. Mothers-to-be agree to start taking ARVs as it is important for their babies. This approach often leads to a situation where the woman stops treatment after delivery. She saves her child, but nobody tells her that first of all she needs the therapy to take care of her own health. To avoid such cases, Kazakhstan would like to introduce peer counselling for pregnant women.

The problem of adherence is crucial in key populations – men who have sex with men, people who use drugs, and sex workers. Due to self-stigma, many do not access health services. It is often much easier for such people to receive support from a civil society organization (CSO) than to go to a government health centre. For this reason, last year many CSOs in Kazakhstan started to actively implement testing and self-testing programmes.

Bargaining for lives

In order to reach as many people living with HIV as possible with quality modern treatment, the Kazakh Ministry of Health decided to procure ARVs through international agencies. It was expected that procuring drugs at minimum prices would allow coverage of patients with new ART regimens to double in the following months, and accelerate transition from older to more modern drugs. However, this spring Almaty residents faced interruptions in the supply of the vital medication dolutegravir.

The Ministry of Health of Kazakhstan and the Pharmacy Committee held negotiations about including Kazakhstan into the voluntary license, which would reduce procurement prices for generic dolutegravir from USD 118 to USD 4.5 This would enable provision of effective therapy to all PLWH in Kazakhstan. However, the patent owner said that only low-income countries can be included in the voluntary license on such terms, and left the old price for Kazakhstan.

“Dolutegravir is really a high-quality medication. It has very few side effects. As there are interruptions in the supply of this drug, patients are transferred to other treatment regimens,” says Vorontsova.

The next delivery of dolutegravir is expected in June. The Ministry of Health will then prepare documents to submit for compulsory licensing, under which generic drugs can be procured at a lower price.

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.

AFEW-Kyrgyzstan Opens a Social Beauty Salon in Bishkek

Head of AFEW-Kyrgyzstan Natalya Shumskaya is cutting the red ribbon during the ceremony of opening the salon

Author: Grana Ziia, AFEW-Kyrgyzstan

March 7, Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan

The city is stuck in pre-holiday traffic jams. Flower stands with colourful tulips are opening near a big shopping mall. Today flowers are in demand among the guests of a new beauty salon called Good Luck. They are doing their best to come in time for the opening ceremony. The salon is located in the city centre, surrounded by popular coffee houses, schools and apartment buildings. There is a red ribbon at the entrance to the salon. Music is playing. The guests are holding bright flowers, balloons, and cakes in their hands. Everyone is hugging, greeting each other and congratulating the AFEW-Kyrgyzstan team. It is easy to tell what the reason for such joy is.

“Good Luck is a ‘kind’ beauty studio – a social enterprise established to support women in difficult life circumstances. We opened it with the support of the UN Women Fund for Gender Equality. We are implementing a project, where women can attend workshops to develop their personal skills and knowledge of the economy and then receive mini-grants to start their own businesses. When we saw that there were many women who needed our support, we decided that we wanted to develop this area of our activities,” tells Natalya Shumskaya, head of AFEW-Kyrgyzstan, before cutting the red ribbon.

Supporting those who need support

In several minutes, the guests come inside. In the main room, they are welcomed by the staff members – six women in snow-white uniforms. They have happy smiles on their faces and are proudly fixing their badges. In the room, there are black chairs for make-up artists and hairdressers, a long manicure table and mirrors with bright lights.

AFEW-Kyrgyzstan opened a social beauty salon with the support of the UN Women Fund for Gender Equality

The studio looks like a cosy house, where every detail is chosen with love. The pink wall in the centre of the room has been painted by the salon staff. There are bright pillows on the couch and glossy magazines on the glass table. Lots of flowers and balloons. Make-up, shampoos and hair dye tubes on the shelves. You just feel like touching, watching and trying everything here.

After the welcoming speeches, the Good Luck salon gets noisy. The clients in their chairs are turning catalogues to choose their nail polish, discussing their haircuts with hairdressers or choosing the colour of their eyebrows. Someone is already washing hair. At first sight, it looks like those are just ordinary people preening their feathers on the eve of the International Women’s Day. However, if you listen to people talking, it becomes clear that it is not so simple.

“For us it is close, so we will come and support them. It is good when all the money earned goes to help women who need help,” shares her thoughts Aida Karagulova, Director of the City AIDS Centre.

Women will be trained

Natalya Shumskaya is sure that this beauty studio will become a turning point in someone’s life

Clients were satisfied with the services they received. The guests were making photos and paying compliments to each other. With their new haircuts, make-up and nails done, they went on to finish their festive preparations.

“We have a training centre here at the salon, where we plan to train women in difficult life circumstances to become beauty salon artists so that they can find jobs,” says Indira, the salon manager, taking us on a tour to show the premises.

Natalya Shumskaya presents a flower in a big pot to the studio and it takes an honourable place at the entrance. The flower is called Women’s Bliss.

“Here it is a good place for this plant as this salon works for those who are looking for their bliss so hard! I am sure that this beauty studio will become a turning point in someone’s life, helping to find a job, start a new career and believe in the woman’s power and right to independence,” says Natalya Shumskaya before she leaves the salon.

Olena Voskresenska: “2018 Was Very Active and Diverse for AFEW-Ukraine”

Author: Olya Kulyk, ICF “AIDS Foundation East-West” (AFEW-Ukraine)

The executive director of International Charitable Foundation “AIDS Foundation East-West” (AFEW-Ukraine) Olena Voskresenska is telling about the main achievements of organisation in 2018 and its plans for 2019.

– Olena, how was the year of 2018 for AFEW-Ukraine?

– 2018 was a very active and diverse year for AFEW-Ukraine. During the last year we strengthened and expanded our work on empowering key communities, developing community leaders and facilitating the dialogue between the communities. In our work with adolescents who use drugs within the project “Bridging the gaps: health and rights for key populations”, the special focus was on developing youth leaders. In 2018, young activists from four regions of Ukraine had a chance to develop their own projects, and small grants that we provided to them allowed young people to implement youth-led projects in their regions. Through the Country Key Populations Platform, that we continue to support, we had an opportunity to learn more about the needs of different key populations – people who use drugs, sex workers, LGBT, and ex-prisoners. We also help the communities to develop communication algorithms to ensure that the voices from the most remote areas of the country are heard by the community leaders.

Besides, at the end of the year, we started the project aimed at empowering HIV-positive women in Kyiv and Cherkassy as advocates for their rights. The project was supported by the Embassy of Norway – a new donor for our organization.

– What were the three main achievements over the past year that you can determine?

– Since 2011, AFEW-Ukraine has been working with adolescents who use drugs, and I am very proud that in 2018 we managed to expand this work to small cities and rural areas of Ukraine. It was possible thanks to the project “Underage, overlooked: Improving access to Integrated HIV Services for Adolescents Most at Risk in Ukraine” that is supported by Expertise France – Initiative 5%. The project is implemented in cooperation with Alliance of Public Health, and now services for adolescents who use drugs are developed in 28 small cities of seven regions of Ukraine. Initial project research, that is now being finalized, is the first of its kind not only in Ukraine but probably in most of the countries of Eastern Europe and Central Asia (EECA).

In 2018, AFEW-Ukraine supported the development of standards on rehabilitation for the Ministry of Social Policy. I am very proud that we managed to bring together a good team of experts for working on the standards, including a representative of the community of people who use drugs. We hope that these standards will help to improve the quality of rehabilitation services in the country, based on the best international practices, human rights approach and needs of the community. We are very much looking forward to further work in this direction not only in Ukraine but also in Georgia.

2018 was also a very important year for all HIV service organisations, as it was the year of the 22nd International AIDS Conference that took place in the Netherlands. Being a part of AFEW Network, with AFEW International Secretariat in Amsterdam, we worked hard to ensure maximum involvement of EECA participants in the conference and attracting attention to our region. I am very happy that we managed to support a large delegation of AFEW-Ukraine partners, including young activist from Kropyvnytskyi, representatives of the community of people who use drugs, and HIV-positive women from Ukraine.

– What are the plans of the Foundation for 2019?

– In 2019 we will continue working with young people in Ukraine, focusing on their active involvement in decision-making processes, including monitoring of the local budgets. I hope that we will be able to expand our work to include young detainees in our projects.

Developing harm reduction friendly rehabilitation remains a priority for us, and we will stimulate the changes in current rehabilitation practices in Ukraine and Georgia with our local partners. Also, we are very much looking forward to closer working with HIV-positive women in Ukraine, disseminating the successful model of immediate intervention that was already tested in Kyiv, to Cherkasy, and potentially other regions of the country. In 2019 we are also planning to revise our strategic plan, which will define the priorities of AFEW-Ukraine’s work for the upcoming several years.

Dreams of the “Invisible” Women in Kyrgyzstan

Author: Grana Ziia, AFEW-Kyrgyzstan

A photo exhibition “Dreams of the Invisible Women” was held in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan from November 25 to December 10, 2018. The exhibition, which was held in the centre of Bishkek and in the venues popular among young people, allowed women suffering from violence, discrimination, living with HIV or using drugs as well as LBT women to send a message to the society: “We are here! We also love and are loved, we deserve to be happy and have equal rights.”

The photo exhibition was initiated by Asteria Foundation with the UNAIDS support. The photo models were participants of Bridging the Gaps: Health and Rights for Key Populations project. The exhibition was held within the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence Campaign, and its opening was dedicated to the World AIDS Day.

“Invisible women” face violence, they become hostage to an endless cycle of abuse, guilt and discrimination. People judge them and tell them: “That’s all your fault!” Often, drugs are the only way for them to run away from their pain, shame and despair. Due to the social stigma, women from the key populations almost never seek help, they are afraid that people will not understand them and will reject them. That is why their problems are invisible for the state and for the society,” says Irena Ermolayeva, Director of the Asteria Charitable Foundation.

Asteria’s statistics confirm this situation. According to the data available, all women from vulnerable populations who have families or intimate partners are exposed to different forms of violence. However, 80% of such women do not seek any help as they are afraid to face stigma and discrimination again.

“This campaign is very important for us. It opens new opportunities for women who use drugs, lesbians, trans women, women living with HIV and women who suffer from violence and show the issue from a different perspective. The main goal of the exhibition is not to “draw” a victim and not to label women, but to focus on the fact that first of all they are human beings and, thus, should have equal rights. I hope that this campaign will change the attitude of our society to thousands of women who are the same as the heroines of our exhibition,” says Irena Ermolayeva.

“Invisible women” are first and foremost someone’s mothers, who love and are loved, someone’s friends and relatives. They need the society to stop viewing them as a problem and to recognize their right to live free, happy and safe lives. They dream to be protected by law and by the state.

Mother-to-Child Transmission of HIV in Kyrgyzstan is Minimal

Now about half of the money allocated by Kyrgyzstan for the HIV component goes to the procurement of test kits for pregnant women

Author: Olga Ochneva, Kyrgyzstan

Kyrgyzstan is getting prepared to receive a certificate to confirm elimination of mother-to-child transmission of HIV. In the last five years, over 95% of pregnant women were covered with prevention projects, while the new cases of vertical HIV transmission are now at the level of 2%.

Testing is an integral part of prevention

Since 2007, all pregnant women have been tested for HIV when registered in maternity care. In case of a positive result, the woman is registered with HIV treatment facilities and receives consultations on the need of antiretroviral treatment (ART).

“A good, easy-to-understand consultation leads to the woman giving her voluntary consent to the therapy initiation. There are rare cases when women refuse treatment due to the lack of knowledge or religious beliefs, but most often – due to their self-stigmatization. The share of such refusals is now less than 2%,” says Erkin Tostokov, physician working at the Prevention Unit of the Republican AIDS Centre. “There are some cases when a woman is first seen by the doctor only when she delivers her baby. For such women, we do rapid HIV testing in the maternity clinics and, if HIV is confirmed, we hand out ART drugs right there. We update our clinical protocols in line with the most recent WHO guidelines and train our doctors on a regular basis.”

Children born to HIV-positive mothers go through several stages of examination: early diagnostics to identify if the foetus is infected intra uterine; then within 4-6 weeks doctors have to exclude HIV transmission during the delivery; and the last test allows detecting the HIV status of the infant after the breastfeeding is completed. Children receive preventive ARV therapy depending on their risk level and receive monthly social benefits during the whole period until final confirmation/non-confirmation of the diagnosis (up to 18 months).

Social benefits for children living with HIV

Elena learned that she had HIV in 2011. In a while, the woman found out that she was pregnant. Back then, she was in a difficult situation: no job, no place to live, and no money. The woman felt lost because of her HIV status.

“The doctor prescribed ART and I started taking the pills, though before I refused to take the therapy because of my allergy,” Elena recalls. “When my daughter was born, she received preventive therapy for two months. When my girl was 18 months, the doctors did the last test and took her off the register as she was perfectly healthy. However, I was still scared and took her for HIV testing until she was four years old.”

Now about half of the money allocated by the state for the HIV component goes to the procurement of test kits for pregnant women. The government provides social benefits for children living with HIV and free breast milk substitutes.

“In the recent 7-8 years, our programmes to prevent mother-to-child transmission of HIV achieved a big progress: the share of such transmission was reduced from nine to one percent,” says Aybek Bekbolotov, Deputy Director of the Republican AIDS Centre. “To a great extent, this result was achieved through the efforts of doctors working in general and maternity clinics. Now there is almost no pregnant woman whom we miss. All maternity clinics have been provided with rapid HIV tests and ART drugs. We received a strong support from UNICEF. They provided training to doctors, supported the launch of early diagnostics in newborns and rapid testing in maternity clinics. Now they help us to get prepared to receive the certificate of having eliminated mother-to-child transmission of HIV. A country can get such a certificate provided that the rate of vertical transmission is less than 2% and if over 95% of pregnant women have been covered with prevention programmes in the recent two years. There are certain requirements to indicators and procedures to calculate such data, and now we are working on meeting them.”

Support and training in the summer camp

Currently, there are 478 children with HIV registered in care, 464 of them receive treatment. Every year, summer camps are held for children living with HIV with UNICEF support. This year, this event will be brought to the international level for the first time.

“In July, there will be a one-week summer camp for children, parents, doctors and social workers from Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan. There will be trainers from the UK, Ukraine, Russia, Germany, Spain, the Netherlands, and Italy,” tells Aybek Bekbolotov. “The camp will include several parallel events: a forum for adolescents living with HIV and their parents, workshop for pediatric medical staff and training for psychologists and social workers.”

Medical and social workers will be trained to work with children living with HIV, while children and their parents will develop support and leadership skills and are expected to form a new community.

Persecution and Activism of Sex Workers in Kyrgyzstan

Author: Olga Ochneva, Kyrgyzstan

For almost a year and a half, law enforcement agencies have been persecuting sex workers in Kyrgyzstan. During this period, the number of sex workers receiving HIV prevention services in some regions of the country reduced twice. Civil society organisations registered more than 450 cases of sex workers’ rights violations by the police every year.

Extortion, detentions, and threats

In 2017, 81% of all reports of abuse and human rights violations submitted to the Shah-Aiym Sex Workers Network were complaints against police officers on extortion. Shah-Aiym documents such cases with the support of Soros Foundation-Kyrgyzstan and street lawyers of public associations all over Kyrgyzstan within the framework of the Global Fund via Soros Foundation-Kyrgyzstan. Both sources recorded 475 cases of sex workers’ rights violations by law enforcement agencies in 2016 and 459 cases in 2017. Most often, those are cases of extortion, arbitrary detention, threats, blackmailing, pressure and degrading treatment.

“The wave of mass raids started in mid-2016 when City Directorate of Internal Affairs in Bishkek announced that it was going to “clean the city by getting rid of prostitution.” They even asked local people to conduct night raids, make photos of sex workers and pass such photos on to the policemen,” tells Shahnas Islamova, head of NGO Tais Plus. “At first, press service of the Chief Directorate of Internal Affairs was reporting detentions, not even hesitating or not understanding that they were, in fact, announcing unlawful acts of the law enforcement agencies.”

In Kyrgyzstan, sex work is decriminalized, which means that it is neither an administrative nor a criminal offense. To punish sex workers, law enforcers use other provisions of the Administrative Offences Code. Most often, sex workers are detained for alleged disorderly conduct or petty crimes.

“Sex workers try to avoid court proceedings: they buy off. There are some cases when law enforcers know what a girl does to earn her living and start blackmailing her. They threaten to take photos of the girls, tell their relatives about their occupation or take them to a police station, so the girls agree to pay: the standard charge is up to 1,000 soms ($15),” tells Alina (the name is changed), a street lawyer of a civil society organization. “If girls try to defend their rights, law enforcers find other ways to detain them: they draft reports of disorderly conduct or failure to obtain registration. Those who have bad luck or are not able to buy off may be arrested for three to five days.”

According to Alina, many sex workers have gone underground: they often change their rented apartments and phone numbers. Such situation in some regions of the country hinders the access of NGOs to sex workers to conduct HIV prevention interventions: distribute condoms, offer testing, conduct awareness-raising activities, and consultations.

“Since the start of the “purge”, our organization has been monitoring the dynamics in the coverage of sex workers with prevention programmes in Bishkek,” says the head of Tais Plus NGO. “In a year and a half, the coverage has reduced twice, and in the second quarter of 2017 the actual indicator went down to 39% of the planned coverage.”

Activism in the challenging environment

Mass raids of 2016-2017 echoed almost in every region of the country. Groups of people who explained their actions with the “religious motives and interests of the society” helped law enforcers in their “fight” against sex workers. As the end of 2017 approached, things calmed down: sex workers got used to the new conditions, while the pressure from the side of police weakened a bit and the mass raids ended. However, “police marks” stipulating sex workers paying money to the law enforcers for the so-called “protection” and “permit to work” are still there.

“Currently, in most cases pimps are the ones to keep contact with police, while there are almost no girls who work on their own,” says Nadezhda Sharonova, director of the Podruga Charitable Foundation about the situation in Osh. “Recently, our street lawyer has been more and more often reporting complaints of sex workers against their pimps who beat and blackmail the girls.”

Despite the fact that civil society organizations in Kyrgyzstan offer legal support, sex workers rarely report their offenders. Representative of the Tais Plus NGO thinks that this fact is easy to explain: to go through all the legal prosecution process, one needs boldness and strength as well as certain savings – not to cover the legal expenses, but to be able not to work for a while and keep out of the law enforcers’ sight.

At the same time, the sex workers movement is growing and becoming stronger. The Shah-Aiym Network unites sex workers in Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Russia. The network documents human rights violations and provides support to the victims of human rights violations, actively protects the interests of sex workers’ community and publicly campaigns against violence towards sex workers. The network ensures conditions for strengthening activists’ capacity to claim and defend their rights.

“We have seen cases when sex workers defend themselves,” says Shahnas Islamova. “For instance, at the court hearings on administrative offenses some sex workers now openly say that they are engaged into sex work and do not violate any laws, while the police has violated the law when detaining them. As a result, such sex workers have left the courtroom free from any accusations.”

Happy with HIV in Tajikistan

Tajik wedding. Source: wikimedia.org

Author: Nargis Hamrabaeva, Tajikistan

A Tadjik girl Nozanin was diagnosed with HIV after her husband-migrant returned home a few years ago. As the man has found it out, he walked out on her… Now the 40-year-old woman is happily married again.

Everything was like a fairy tale

“It happened unexpectedly, like in a fairy tale. Once I was taking care of the household, when my friend, who liked me, called. He said that he would come with a mullah (a clergyman conducting the wedding ceremony according to the Muslim canons – editor’s note) and some of our colleagues. They really came. After the religious wedding ceremony, we went to his parents,” Nozanin is saying.

This friend turned out to be a client of the Republican Network of Women Living with HIV, where Nozanin has been working. He was also HIV positive. He wanted to marry a woman with the same status and Nozanin somehow even tried to find him a suitable candidate. It turned out that the man was already in love with her…

“I never thought that I could ever get married again, especially having HIV status,” she says.

Today Nozanin considers herself to be a happy woman. Together with her husband they have a lot of plans and ideas, and they also want to give birth to a healthy child. Many couples living with HIV have the same desire.

A marriage contract is not needed

700 people in Tajikistan receive support from the Republican Network of Women Living with HIV. For the most part, these are young people who want to start a happy family.

Tahmina Haydarova, the head of the network, says that young men between the ages of 18 and 35 come to them searching for a soulmate with the same HIV status. Often these are labor migrants, former drug users or prisoners who have never been married before. Brides are usually those who have already been married. These women contracted the virus from a migrant husband or partner who used drugs.

Such brides do not ask to sign a marriage contract; they do not ask for an apartment or dacha. The most important thing for them is the timely use of antiretroviral therapy by their future spouse and a healthy life.

HIV is not a barrier

Each year the Republican Network of Women Living with HIV helps at least 5-6 young HIV positive people to find their spouses. Takhmina Haydarova is telling about 10 couples who decided to start a family with the fact that one of the spouses is HIV positive.

“If a person loves and accepts you for who you are, then HIV is not an obstacle to start a family. Today antiretroviral drugs that block the HIV are available. A person living with HIV with a suppressed viral load can start a family, give birth to a healthy child, live a full and happy life the way our clients do,” she says.

According to the Republican AIDS Center, the total number of HIV positive citizens in Tajikistan has reached 10 thousand people, one third of them are women. Since 2004, women with HIV have given birth to 1,000 children, 600 of these children have no HIV.

Bridging the Gaps in Clinical Guideline to Care in Pregnancy for Women Using Psychoactive Substances

All the regions of Kyrgyzstan already received the developed clinical guideline

The estimate number of people who use injected drugs (PWID) in Kyrgyzstan is about 25,000 people. Many of these people are women. Such is the data from the research that was conducted within the framework of the Global Fund’s grant in 2013.

Applying recommendations in practice

In 2016, Public Fund (PF) Asteria, a community based organisation that protects rights of women who use drugs in Kyrgyzstan, applied to AFEW-Kyrgyzstan seeking for a help in developing a clinical guideline to care in pregnancy for women who use drugs. Within the framework of the project Bridging the Gaps: health and rights for key populations, AFEW-Kyrgyzstan decided to support this initiative as there were no modern standards for working with women who use drugs in the country before. A working group that included an expert in narcology, an obstetrician-gynecologist, an expert in evidence-based medicine, and a representative of the community of women who use drugs was created. In January 2017, the clinical guideline “Care in pregnancy, childbirth and the puerperium for women who use psychoactive substances” was approved by the order of the Ministry of Health and became mandatory for doctors’ use.

“When the guideline was approved, we realized that it is not enough to simply distribute it among the doctors. It was necessary to organize a comprehensive training for the family doctors, obstetrician-gynecologists and other specialists so that they could not only apply the developed recommendations in practice, but also share their experience with their colleagues,” said Chinara Imankulova, project manager of the Bridging the Gaps: health and rights of key populations at AFEW-Kyrgyzstan.

In April 2017, trainings were organized for the teachers of Kyrgyz State Medical Institute for postgraduate students. The manuals for teachers with presentations have been developed so that in the future trained teachers could deliver reliable information to the course participants. This approach gives an opportunity to train all healthcare professionals in the country and provides them with an access to the protocol.

In August 2017, trainings were offered to obstetrician-gynecologists of the centers of family medicine and obstetrical institutions. During the trainings, specialists got acquainted with the latest research in this field, studied the peculiarities of pregnancy, prenatal and postnatal period of women, who use drugs, as well as ways to avoid or minimize the risks of drug exposure to women and children.

“Two or three years ago, when our pregnant women who use drugs visited doctors, they were afraid that doctors would force them to have an abortion. In September 2017, our client Victoria, who at that time was on methadone therapy, visited the obstetrician-gynecologist. Victoria gave birth to a healthy girl, and doctors treated Victoria and her child very well. Moreover, the doctor even helped Victoria to get methadone so she could spend enough time in the hospital for rehabilitation after the childbirth,” said Tatiana Musagalieva, a representative of PF Asteria.

Women should not be discriminated

During the trainings, 100 specialists who are working in the republic of Kyrgyzstan were trained. Doctors from the regional centers were also invited for the training. It is very important to provide access to quality medical services for women who use drugs in the rural areas. Doctors also learned to get rid of their stigma towards women who use drugs and always treat them with respect. A class on stigma and discrimination was taught by women from the community of drug users. They told the participants of the training their stories, talked about how difficult it was when doctors refused to treat them or insulted them. This part was useful in reducing stigma and discrimination among doctors, in showing them that women who use drugs are just like the others.

“Before the training I met several pregnant women who use drugs. To be honest, I was not sure that they could give birth to healthy children. Having received the clinical protocol, and with the knowledge I have got in the training, I realized that these women should not be discriminated. I learned about scientific recommendations for conducting pregnancy in the situations that cannot do harm to either mother or child. This helped me a lot,” said the participant of the training, obstetrician-gynecologist Kaliyeva Burul.

All the regions of the republic already received the developed clinical guideline. Doctors who have been trained, share their experiences with their colleagues and help women who use drugs to safely plan their pregnancies and give births to healthy children. AFEW-Kyrgyzstan continues to monitor the work of specialists who have been trained, and monitors if all health specialists have access to the guideline. In the future, AFEW-Kyrgyzstan will continue to work on improving the quality of life of people who use drugs, and will monitor the usage of this protocol by doctors.