Meet our new Steering Committee member from Ukraine - Olena Stryzhak
In 2021 three new members joined AIDS Action Europe's Steeting Committee. We are happy to welcome Olena Stryzhak from our member organisation "Positive Women" in Ukraine and use this opportunity to ask her a few questions.
1. You have been working in the field of HIV for quite some time. Please tell us about your background and how you started to advocate for the interest of people living with HIV and other key populations Would you like to share a part of the work you or your organisation have been doing that you consider particularly successful, important or in other terms a highlight.
Almost from the moment I found out about my HIV status during my pregnancy, I started working on issues that affect women. It was quite difficult for me, because it was the year 2000 and there was no access to antiretroviral therapy, and there was very little information. When I went through this unexplored process of childbirth on my own, being HIV-positive, it was a starting point for me. I wanted to be of maximum help to women in overcoming the same difficulties, so that they could go through this path with less psychological burden.
Almost immediately I started looking for the opportunities to connect and communicate with people living with HIV. I started helping and telling people, who didn't know their status, what it was and how to get tested. And for those who found out about their HIV status, that it was possible to live with it and give birth. In 2002 I got acquainted with the All-Ukrainian Network of People Living with HIV. At that time they had just started their activities which impressed and absorbed me very much.
Among the significant events I would like to mention the Vienna Conference 2010, where an initiative was created, uniting women living with HIV from Europe, and pushed the issues of counteracting violence against women on the agenda of HIV events.
This conference was also followed by a meeting in Moscow, where UNAIDS invited women from Eastern Europe and Central Asia. The topic of discussion was zero transmission of HIV from mother to child. This moment was important because we, women from different communities living with HIV, came together to advocate for our rights. We talked about the next steps, during a time when there was a need for access to treatment and health and social services. It was important to protect the rights of women living with HIV, and to receive barrier-free services. And this was not happening because of high levels of stigma and discrimination.
In 2011 women from different cities gathered in Ukraine, and in 2013 we registered our organization "Positive Women". Since then we have been working as an official structure, and we are the only network of women living with HIV in Ukraine. Our members and participants can be not only women living with HIV, but also our fellow women. However, the founders and the board are women living with HIV. After all, when we are talking about protection of the rights, peer support is the most significant and effective one.
For example, in Ukraine we have already managed to change two normative legal acts of the Ministry of Health. One is the order on in vitro fertilization. Until 2019, according to this order, women living with HIV could not receive this service, and after 5 years of work we managed to change this. Also, thanks to our activist from Odessa in 2020, the court case was won and the order of the Ministry of Health of Ukraine that prohibited HIV-positive people to be guardians/adoptive parents was declared illegal. I consider this to be an achievement for the community of women living with HIV. And because of this experience, we are also planning to develop paralegal training this year.
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 your organisation?
I saw the need and understood the importance of building relationships and sharing experiences with European countries. I had been paying attention to AIDS Action Europe for a long time, I really enjoyed your aterials at the international conferences. The work of AAE resonated strongly in me, as the focus is the region of Europe. For example, there has been less attention to Europe in the international arena as far as women's leadership is concerned. I was inspired by the attention and feedback from my colleagues on the results of AAE's work. I noted the high quality of work and expertise, and I had a desire to become part of the team of professionals to implement collaborative activities. I decided that we need to use this resource, learn more about each other and share the information we have.
3. What is your role in your organisation and what does your work look like?
As I indicated earlier, our organization is all-Ukrainian, we have representatives in all regions of Ukraine, and coordination takes place at the national level. Today we have three official representations - separately registered organizations in the regions: Cherkasy, Rivne and Dnepropetrovsk. And, of course, I try to find an opportunity to travel to the regions, because I myself am not from the capital, and I am familiar with the needs and challenges experienced by women from small towns and villages.
If you look at global initiatives, everything we do in the first place is aimed at supporting the final recipients, and they are women who live in the regions.
So my task is both managerial and political. We don't have an executive director position that would deal with operational activities. That's why I mix the two functions. I also like consulting women directly and talk to them when they come to me with questions. This is very important to me because it is the only way that allows me to speak from personal experience, when I later participate at events.
For example, in the context of the issue of adoption that I mentioned above, the process took a very long time. The community of PLHIV had long raised this issue, but it was a woman who filed a lawsuit, and thanks to this lawsuit, the decision was found to be unlawful.
Afterwards, I have been approached by people who were at some point forced to hide their HIV-positive status from child welfare representatives in order to take custody of their close relatives. And I have had great pleasure of counseling them and explaining the course of proceeding on the basis of the amendments to the regulatory documents. And I've accompanied people to child services to explain the changes in the law to local professionals. For me, my role consists of the general process of helping and acting not only within my organization, but also in my life.
4. Could you tell us briefly about the HIV/AIDS situation in your country. What are the main problems and the main successes? Where do you think AAE can provide support in addressing these issues?
In the area of experience and achievements that AAE has, for example, on access to medicines, or on the decriminalization of HIV transmission in the countries. I think this kind of exchange, including information exchange, is very important. For example, we now have Ukrainian judges who are ready to cooperate and get information about changes and practices regarding Article 130 of the Criminal Code, which criminalizes the transmission of HIV. To find out how these changes have occurred in other countries. And it is very important in such cases to have international partners to properly prepare materials, get contacts and necessary expertise. And similarly from my side, if my experience is useful, I am always ready to share it at the events, meetings and joint work.