My birthday month, November, had a great start by doing what I like most, giving my HIV activism a boost. Between 4-7 November I was in Istanbul for a face-to-face ‘Skills Training to Empower Patients’ (STEP-UP) and networking weekend organized by the European AIDS Treatment Group (EATG) Training Academy.
After more than a year of online training because of Covid 19, I got a chance to finally meet my fellow European and Asian HIV activists and advocates. Everyone was dying to meet and finally get to know each other more and share our experiences because in the end it is really about community voices. It was quite interesting to experience the difference between zoom meetings and ‘real’ talks together.
As we all came from different parts of Europe and Central Asia we had to speak different languages, so some were speaking English and others Russian. But in the end we all share the same goal and then language barriers can be overcome. While chatting with different people and listening to presentations, I realized that we all share what I call a “Bouquet of problems”; Stigma, discrimination and criminalization.
During the weekend I learnt so many new insights. For example, my friends from Greece and Georgia shared with us that among people using drugs, women are way more stigmatised than men. Or that in some countries mothers living with HIV are still criminalised when breastfeeding and that they are not receiving any support from the health system to obtain baby formula or do medical checks during their breastfeeding period.
Yet, all the new information led me to ask so many questions. For example, why are especially women still so vulnerable to attack and deliberate stigmatision? There are so many new developments and guidelines, for example on breastfeeding, there is U=U, etc. In 2021, women living with hiv should not be criminalised at all. I am telling you, no mother would wish to transmit HIV to her child on purpose!
It shocked me to hear that there are still 130 (!) countries where people living with HIV are injustly criminalised, and in 50 countries we can be prosecuted because they have outdated laws related to sexual, but also on spitting, biting and even breastfeeding. People, after 40 years of HIV/AIDS, instead of being stigmatised we must focus our fight on removing inequalities and to demand the right to access HIV treatment and receive good medical care.
Our training was epic, there was no taboo, we talked about many topics and received useful tools that we can use in our communities. It feels like I have known this group for such a long time as we shared so many laughs, jokes and fun. It made me wonder what more we could have achieved if we could have done all sessions face-to-face instead of via zoom. I gained so many friends, which is fantastic. These moments of togetherness bring back humanity to our lives.
By Sunday, we all went back home empowered with knowledge that we will share with our community and use to convince our decision-makers and politicians to DECRIMINALISE people living with HIV!
Thank you EATG for organising the STEP-UP training and making this such an inspiring weekend, we shall meet again my Activist Friends. Keep up the fight, we are on the winning side since we DARE to speak up about our bouquet of problems!