Last week I had the great honour of accompanying Lord Fowler during his parliamentary field visit to Ukraine.
Lord Fowler is a champion of evidence-informed HIV responses in the UK and internationally. He was instrumental to the UK’s ‘Don’t Die of Ignorance’ campaign, which raised awareness of HIV dramatically during the 1980s.
I am Ukrainian and worked at the International HIV/AIDS Alliance in Ukraine (Alliance Ukraine) before moving to the UK to work at the Alliance secretariat. As such it was a very interesting and enriching experience to facilitate Lord Fowler’s introduction to achievements and challenges of HIV response in Ukraine.
During his visit Lord Fowler met with activists from communities most affected by HIV. They discussed the contradictions of Ukrainian HIV related legislation, and other issues including: human rights abuses, criminalisation, persecution by police as well as stigma and discrimination against people who use drugs, patients of substitution maintenance therapy, sex workers and men who have sex with men.
It was particularly pleasant for me to meet with many HIV activists whom I had worked with before. It was wonderful to see how their professionalism has grown over the years – they are now even sharper, more convincing and persuasive.
One of the activists was Elena Tsukerman, who fights for sex workers’ rights (legalife.com.ua). At the end of the meeting between Lord Fowler and leaders of communities most affected by HIV she confidently put her hand up to ask a question.
“Lord Fowler, can I please take a picture with you?” She asked, explaining, “For years the Ukrainian government has been refusing to have dialogue with us and I think a photo with you will help us to continue our work and establish dialogue with the government.”
Reflecting about her question later she said she was hesitant, wondering “whether this will be a permissible question to ask, but then I decided to go for it”, and she was very happy when he agreed to be photographed with her.
Advocacy in action
Within a few hours Elena published the photo of Lord Fowler and herself on her blog. There she writes “While officials of the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Ukrainian politicians say that they are not ready to have a dialogue with sex workers, thinking that this harms their reputation, the UK Parliamentarian, Lord Fowler, not only spoke with me, as a representative of sex workers, but even agreed that sex work is WORK…We hope that Lord Fowler’s and our continued work will contribute to reforming Ukrainian legislation related to the sex work and will increase the inclusion of sex workers in the decision making process” (translated from the original Russian).
Supporting HIV activists in Ukraine
It was very encouraging to see how far HIV related activism has come in Ukraine. Part of this progress is thanks to the work Alliance Ukraine has done in strengthening the advocacy capacity of the leaders of communities most affected by HIV. This work was done with the support of the Global Fund to Fight HIV/AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria as well as USAID funding.
Today activists’ voices are strong and they are able to share experiences about the human rights challenges of HIV response in Ukraine and influence decisions which affect the lives of the communities they represent.
I tweeted from Ukraine during the visit, you can follow me on Twitter here.