Living with HIV and violence: Women of Ukraine speak out and build solidarity
In Ukraine, 35 per cent of women living with HIV have experienced violence since the age of 15. Many women cannot definitively say that they have experienced violence, because they have suffered and witnessed gender-based violence through generations and it has been normalized. For women living with HIV, lack of awareness, shelters and support services pose additional challenges. Peer-support groups and the National Women’s Forum on HIV, supported by UN Women is bringing awareness, action and new beginnings for HIV positive women survivors of violence.
Hanna Lilina found out about her HIV status during a pre-natal checkup. The 30-year-old was pregnant again, and had just left her abusive partner and fled the conflict in eastern Ukraine, with her one-year-old daughter.
In Ukraine, 35 per cent of women living with HIV have experienced violence since the age of 15 (compared to 19 per cent of women who are not HIV positive), according to a 2016 study conducted by a local organization named “Positive Women”, with the support of UN Women. Like Lilina, almost a quarter of the 1,000 women surveyed could not definitively say whether they have experienced violence in their lives, although the experiences they shared were decidedly violent.
“I did not know how to identify violence. Having experienced it since childhood, I didn’t even think to fight it.”
In Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine, where Lilina resettled, she joined a peer support group for women living with HIV, “Kyyanka+”. The group provides educational and awareness raising trainings where women learn how anti-retroviral therapy works, how to cope with the diagnosis and live with their HIV positive status, and how to best disclose it to others.
“We monitor to make sure that not only does our assistance improve women’s health, but also changes the quality of their life for the better,” says Anna Aryabinska, a mentor at the peer support group, who is living with HIV herself. Before she joined the group, she was highly skeptical, which is typical among women living with HIV because of stigma and isolation they often experience and internalize.
The support group has been successful in helping members leave abusive situations, but often it’s a long process. Some members who have chosen to keep their HIV status private may be afraid to leave their abuser for the fear of disclosure—a fear that the abuser often uses as leverage, to keep them from leaving. “It is more difficult to work with women who continue to experience violence. It becomes a vicious circle of us giving the positive energy to a woman, but if she still lives with her perpetrator, she goes home and all of this work is undone by the psychological and physical abuse she experiences,” Aryabinska continues.
“Survivors have the power to break the cycle of violence and help others”
Lack of access to adequate shelters and services is another challenge for women survivors of violence. “We are concerned about the lack of safe accessible shelters because many shelters do not accept HIV-positive women,” says Maryna Rudenko, manager of UN Women “CEDAW in Action!” programme funded by Canada that focuses on the implementation of CEDAW—the international women’s rights agreement that the Government of Ukraine has ratified. “Few survivors use the scarce services that are available, which is why UN Women supports programmes on raising awareness of gender-based violence, encouraging survivors to report and seek assistance, as well as building trust with the local police and service providers,” adds Rudenko.
Leave no one behind...
“I teach my clients to value themselves, their emotional health and that honesty, open communication and acceptance can act as a counterbalance to the violence they have experienced in their lives,” says Zhanna Matveyko.
Zhanna Matveyko, one of the social workers with another support group called “Equal to Equal” in Lviv, western Ukraine, has experienced the lack of safe havens herself. Matyevko grew up watching her father beat her mother, who in turn physically abused her. At fifteen, she left home, and got involved with drugs and sex work, which landed her in prison. Today she works as a social worker with young women and men who have HIV, as well as people overcoming drug addiction.
All three women are part of the National Women’s Forum on HIV, which brings together women across Ukraine as well as from other countries in Europe and Central Asia, with the support of UN Women and other partners, to advocate for guaranteeing women’s participation in local AIDS councils; bolsteringprevention measures among women and girls; and providing HIV counselling and testing as an integral part of gender-based violence response.