By Victoria Lintsova, Ukraine
On 9 and 10 July, I had a great opportunity to participate in the AIDS Forum “Ensuring That Our Voice Is Heard”, and for me even the title of the meeting communicated its intentions from the beginning – to strengthen the involvement of the community of drug users in decision-making processes at the country and international levels in the context of HIV and drug policy programmes.
I arrived at Irpen in the evening on 8 July, there were many people from Russia, Georgia, the Baltic States, Belarus at the hotel, and I immediately plunged into the atmosphere of a very special dimension, where drug users are legal and accepted, the word "narkoman" (drug user) there had a different meaning. It meant my peculiarity, rather than a defect or disadvantage.
Communicating with people who understood the complexities of my nature, because of our similarities, brought me satisfaction that would long be associated with the Forum. I learned first-hand that some countries of the former Soviet Union have more humane drug policies, including the Baltic countries, and that there's Russia, with its ban on substitution therapy; Uzbekistan, where the OST programmes were shut down; and Georgia where female drug users are discriminated at all social levels and feel like outcasts because of the patriarchal traditions of the country.
One of the main goals of the Forum was to prepare messages from representatives of communities affected by HIV to the delegates of the International AIDS Conference, held in Washington, D.C. on 22-27 July 2012, such that our voice and our opinions could be heard at the conference. We had to think about, and prepare the text, of the messages.
After opening the Forum, on the first day, a panel discussion "Drug policy and HIV" was held. During this panel, community representatives from Ukraine, Uzbekistan and Russia voiced the main problems hindering implementation of HIV programmes. Irina Teplinskaya talked about how drug users survive and die in a country where it is forbidden to even talk about OST and how repressive drug policy affects the lives and health of the communities affected by HIV. That country is Russia.
Sergei Uchaev spoke about how closing OST programs in Uzbekistan affected people’s lives. And I was honored to represent Ukraine – my speech was about people in uniform who are supposed to protect our society from criminals but who perform reprisals against OST programme participants manipulating the withdrawal syndrome, because for them the definition of a "drug user" is the same as the definition of a "criminal". We, participants of OST in Ukraine, are a target of close and intrusive observation by law enforcement agencies that affects the quality of care and life and makes us face a difficult choice: either OST and becoming a police "target" or going underground and using illegal drugs.
Michel Kazatchkine from the Global Commission on Drug Policy, Jean-Elie Malkin, regional UNAIDS director, and Elliot Ross Albers, executive director of INPUD represented international organizations at the panel.
To develop messages for AIDS 2012, we split into three sections and worked simultaneously in three rooms. I took part in two discussions of issues affected me personally, including “The rights and health of women using drugs in EECA” and “The quality of OST programs in EECA”. In the third room, strategic planning of ENPUD took place, Russian activist Alexey Kurmanaevsky presented results of this important meeting at the end of the Forum. So the idea materialized – ENPUD’s vision, mission and strategic plan. Some say that drug users are disorganized – but even Ukraine’s Parliament would be jealous of the coordination, discipline and motivation that prevailed at the two-day Forum.
I formulated and recorded two video messages – on behalf of the female section (about the problems I as an HIV-positive drug using woman face and live with, and what changes I would like the Conference delegates to initiate). In the message I also speak about the threats for the community and for a country that lives in the conditions of an HIV epidemic posed by a repressive legal base for OST in Ukraine, and why improving the quality of OST in Ukraine is important.
My English skills are insufficient for conversations, but language barrier wasn’t a problem when communicating with foreigners at the Forum. The nature of activism is international, and its language is understood by all nations! New friends from various countries whom I met at the Forum filled me with inspiration and convinced me that we did everything to make people hear us, from the political will and decisions that our lives and future depend upon.