All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights, according to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. But in real life everything is different.
Within the framework of the #Partnership Forum, a discussion was held on the topic “The role of the community in reducing stigma and discrimination in access to services for PLWH and key groups”. Representatives of organizations of key groups in Armenia, Estonia, Azerbaijan, Kyrgyzstan and Belarus shared their experience in the struggle against discrimination, spoke about national peculiarities of intolerance and ways of communicating with government bodies.
In order to understand the source of discrimination, Armenian activists conducted a study in their country and found out that PWID and PLWH are most often subjected to discrimination and stigma in medical facilities. To combat this, they began to document such incidents.
“People’s stories are important to us. When we went to advocacy meetings at the government, at the Ministry of Health, and told stories about stigma and discrimination in medical facilities, the officials’ response was just one: name who this doctor was, and we will fire him, say the name! Therefore, in order to avoid such problems in the future, we decided to document such manifestations of intolerance, to have the exact dates of the incidents recorded and be able to compile a statistical data to prove that the problem exists, that PLWH are denied services in medical institutions. The same is true for LGBT and PWUD”, said Nvard Markarian from Pink Armenia.
However, the Armenian activists did not limit themselves to documenting. On the basis of the study, they made a social experiment to show on the basis of their specific examples, what happens to a person when they come to a facility and say that they are a LGBT person, they have HIV or take drugs. They shot a film where they recorded the reaction of officials and medical workers.
In Azerbaijan, the problem with stigma and discrimination of key communities is also acute, however, it’s not health workers, with whom successful effective cooperation has been established, but law enforcement agencies being the key source of aggression. Representatives of the Ministry of Internal Affairs implement operations aimed at identifying transgender people, disguising them as activities in the framework of response to the epidemic situation of HIV in the country.
“Last year there was a big raid in Baku, the police arrested more than 250 transgender people”, Kamran Rzayev, a representative of the Azerbaijani NGO “Gender and Development”, told us. “They did not have the right to arrest, because it is not prohibited, and sex work is punishable with a simple fine. But these people were all kept in custody for 20 days. At the same time, the Ministry of Internal Affairs announced officially that they are imprisoned because they have HIV. We appreciate that our AIDS center stated that no one among the arrested people was brought in for medical examination or tested. If there were no such rebuffing, the population would have the impression that all transgender people are HIV-infected, and they should be feared even more”.
In order to change the situation with the persecution of transgender people, activists prepared anti-discriminatory amendments to the legislation. “We have done a lot of work, met with deputies, provided documentation, proposals, changes. And they promised us that our proposals would be considered”, says Kamran Rzayev. “We have a very large group of transgender people, and almost all of them are sex workers. People collect money for the surgery through sex work, they won’t be able to collect it at an ordinary job, and they are even unlikely to be hired”.
Latsin Alijev from the Estonian Network of PLWH is convinced that we need maximum publicity in order for the situation with discrimination to change. In his opinion, it is necessary to create an atmosphere of equality.
“When in the 90s we began to study what stigma is, we understood that there is a fertile soil of ignorance, and stigma flourishes on this soil. Therefore, we are the first in the country who started to openly tell that we are HIV-positive and appear on television, on the radio, give interviews”, he said. “We used to tell, that yes, we are different, but we are what we are. We fostered an atmosphere of new understanding that we are equal among society. I do not like the word “tolerance”, as if people somehow put up with you. I do not like to be tolerated, I want to be equal!”
If discrimination can be overcome by information campaigns at the everyday life level, then nothing can be done with the prejudices enshrined in the laws, except changing the legislation itself. This is the path taken by activists in Kyrgyzstan, who may soon adopt the “Law on Equality”, and Belarus, where activists are struggling with outdated discriminatory provisions.
“Law enforcement officials remain the major sources of aggression towards for key populations, and for some it is also the family. The two institutions that should protect people from birth, but which are the main violators of human rights”, said Daniyar Orsekov, representative of “Kyrgyz Indigo.” “We are now in a very important period, when there is an opportunity to either implement the anti-discrimination bill, or not. We do not know when a next opportunity to raise this issue comes by. Now we are creating an effective intersectoral partnership, and this is also a huge advantage. First, PLWH, PWID, LGBT united, and later other groups joined us: women, children, religious minorities, people with disabilities. We are expanding the list”.
The organizations of Kyrgyzstan understand that the legislation itself is not a panacea, but the amendments will succeed in changing the very context of the political will of the state. A legal mechanism will emerge to protect people and enable them to officially uphold their rights.
Belarusian activists formulate legislative changes in the working group so far, they are struggling with the arbitrariness of the internal affairs bodies. After all, as long as HIV transmission in the country is criminalized, law enforcement agencies will have reasons to initiate criminal cases, thus improving statistics.
“From 2012 to 2016, 38 criminal cases for HIV infection were initiated. In 2017 there were already 130 of them. The increase is by 1400 percent!”, Tatiana Zhuravskaya, “People Plus”, emphasized. “Moreover, in the Gomel region, a compulsory screening of the population was conducted, and most PLWH are unfamiliar with the legal nuances. They provided explanations on the form which is usually filled by victims in criminal proceedings. In addition, the medical service is obliged to exchange information with law enforcement officers. Investigators are also motivated by incentives and promotion, because this article of the Criminal Code entails particularly serious changes. People are stigmatized and refuse to seek help from lawyers”.
In order to combat the criminalization of HIV transmission, activists created a working group that recorded the appeals and provided legal counseling. The next step is to work on changing the legislation.
“It was a volunteer work”, said Tatyana Zhuravskaya. “We collected written appeals, asked for an official response from WHO that HIV is no longer a fatal disease, but a chronic manageable condition. The organization received 56 complaints from defendants in a year. We assist, we work with doctors, deputies, judges. The results are such that in 2018 the number of criminal cases decreased by 30%, many cases do not reach court and are recognized unsubstantiated, as we have time to assist many people”.