Living in a conflict zone is hard, but for HIV positive women, is even worse.
Yelena knows it very well: she comes from the separatist region of Luhansk, in Eastern Ukraine. When she found out to be HIV positive, she faced a harsh reality: there was not a medical treatment for her disease. She decided to move with her child to Kiev to get treatment. Leaving her family and a disabled father was not easy, but the conditions were unbearable, she says.
“There is a lot of discrimination over there: a lot of people hold weapons. It is not only discrimination about HIV positive women but also ordinary women can be harassed. And if they find out that you have a dangerous disease, then they start to treat you even worse”.
A study from Oxford University suggests that HIV incidence is on the rise in Ukraine, due to the conflict. Women are more exposed to sexual violence and prostitution, because of a large military presence and the need for people to get financial resources.
But stigmatization of HIV is a broader issue among Ukrainian society. Fears of violence and discrimination make women reluctant to be tested or treated.
Based in Kiev, Vera Varyga set up the NGO “Positive women”. In partnership with the United Nation Development Program, it provides assistance and information to HIV positive women.
“HIV infection is transmitted not from those who are HIV infected and receive therapy, because their virus level is low. infection comes from those people who don’t know they are HIV infected and their virus level is high. That’s why we need to do maximum efforts to form a tolerant attitude of the society towards this problem”.
According to UNAIDS, Ukraine has one of the largest HIV epidemics in Europe. Antiretroviral coverage increased in recent years, but the high rate of new infection in conflict areas threatens to outpace these gains.