Tanja Dimitrijevic became AAE’s Steering Committee Member last year, in 2017. Here she tells us her story why she works in the HIV/AIDS field and about the struggling situation for NGOs working on HIV/AIDS in Serbia.

1. Hi Tanja, can you please tell about your background of working in the field of HIV/AIDS? How did you start working in the field?

When I was working for a local radio station, in 1997, I met Ivan Radojicic, who was the first person in the Balkans who openly spoke about his HIV status. His courage and life story touched me deeply and motivated me to become an HIV activist. Even today, eight years after he died from AIDS, his story and the facts that he was born on December 1, on the World AIDS Day, and that his father was an immunologist sounds incredible to me. Every time, when I struggle in my professional or private life I remember his words: “We will keep fighting!”. It gives me the strength and persistence not to quit.

Later, in 2006, I met Sandra Mancic, who was the only woman in the Balkans who openly spoke about her HIV Status. I became a volunteer at “SUN PLHIV”, an organisation who was founded by her and other PLHIV and doctors working in the field of HIV\AIDS.  “SUN PLHIV” is the only organisation working in the field of HIV/AIDS in South-eastern Serbia. It is one of the Founders of the Union of Organisations of People Living with HIV and AIDS of Serbia (USOP).

I have worked mostly in prevention, harm reduction and support programs, mainly with youth, LGBT population, ex-prisoners and people who use drugs.

2. What was your motivation to become a SC member of AAE?  What do you expect from the work as SC member of AAE and which benefits do you expect for your work in USOP?

To be more engaged in the field of HIV\AIDS at the European level and to exchange knowledge and experiences with other countries and organisations was my motivation. Furthermore, I want to put my country and organisation on the agenda and keep the network informed about what is going on and what are the biggest challenges in Serbia to form a stronger response to the HIV\AIDS Epidemic.

3. The Global Fund Programs were closed in Serbia what led to struggle due to financial problems for non-governmental organisations working in the field of HIV/AIDS prevention. Please tell us how the situation looks nowadays and how your organisation works in these settings.

The Global Fund (GF) programs were closed in 2014. Serbia was removed from the GF’s list of countries eligible for the HIV support for the next three years. From 2003 to 2014: Serbia received about 30 million $ from the GF. At this time, for the most organisations working in the field of HIV\AIDS in Serbia, it was the important financial source for their activities. In the most difficult position has been the Harm Reduction Services, which almost completely stopped after GF programs were closed.

From 2007 to 2014: Needle exchange services were implemented in four towns. After GF programs were closed, just one town could fulfil the minimum of these services. The financing from the Serbian Government has been insufficient and there has been a lack of political will to put HIV/AIDS on the agenda. Luckily, the GF announced that they are willing to finance again the programs in Serbia but first it needed to become eligible for Serbia. Serbia has to adopt a National Strategy for HIV/AIDS. The last National Strategy ended in 2015 and this is also one of the indicators in what position is the cause of HIV/AIDS seeing through the eyes of the government in Serbia.  

There is no National Strategy at the moment. Draft Strategy and Action Plan for 2018-2021 was written in December 2017 and January 2018. The time given to PLHIV organisations to comment was one day, so practically we did not have a chance to give our opinions and comments. Furthermore, USOP is about to raise objection to the Government of Serbia on the Nomination and Selection of President and Vice-President of the GF Country Coordinating Mechanism (CCM) in Serbia, as well as the decision to cut the number of members of PLHIV from 4 to 3.  The forming of CCM is also one of the conditions of GF in order to come back to Serbia.

The overall process of the nomination and selection of the members of CCM was not transparent and it was held without integrating the GIPA principle and the GF's recommendation on at least 20% members representing PLHIV civil society organisations (CSO). The Nomination of the President and Vice-President were without any consultation or consideration with PLHIV CSOs although GF recommended for the Nomination of Vice-President to be from CSOs.

4. Please tell us about your recent or past good practice example which worked in the field of HIV/AIDS in Serbia.

USOP has just finished a two-year project “Towards Standardisation of Community based Social Services for PLHIV in Serbia” financed by the EU. The aim was to improve quality of social and health care services for PLHIV. Seven organisations from four towns in Serbia were part of this project. Procedures and instruments for evaluation of community services for PLHIV were created and developed. Although some organisations were struggling to find contribution from the local municipalities and local donors, the project was finished successfully involving different stakeholders and enabling dialogue between PLHIV and NGO’s and decision-makers.

5. Can you tell us about your mission/your goal in the field of HIV/AIDS? And what are the barriers in Serbia on the way to reach them?

What I want to achieve is to increase the number of people get tested by enabling self-testing and removing the restrictions on who can legally administer the testing. The testing is provided by the Institute for Public Health and other Health Care Institutions in Belgrade and few other towns. Because of stigma and other reasons such as the working days and hours of the institutions or non-ability to travel to another town where the institution is situated due to financial or some other obstacles etc., the access is limited. Home-testing and testing provided by NGO’s members and activists at places which are low-threshold would be a better solution.

My personal mission is to enable access to PrEP in Serbia and to provide the newest generation of medications for PLHIV, since most of them just get the first generation. Furthermore, I will continue working on fighting stigma and discrimination, especially among health care providers, who work in the field of HIV/AIDS. 

Thank you, Tanja!