Yelena Strizhak, a HIV activist from Ukraine, the Chairperson of the Board of the Charitable Organization “Positive Women”, conducted a training on women’s leadership organized by the “Silver Rose” movement for women from different HIV-service organizations in St. Petersburg. She told about her life and work, about the starting point of her activist journey and the most important achievements, about the Russian and Ukrainian experience in the fight against the HIV epidemic.
– How did it all start?
– It’s been so long … It all started when I learned about my status. Then I had the most important period in my life – pregnancy and the birth of a child. A little time passed, my daughter was about six months old. I once again came to the AIDS Center on some issues and had a talk with a psychologist. She told me: “Why wouldn’t you unite HIV-positive people in a group where you could communicate with each other? Do you want to try?”. I asked, “How?” Where do I find them? “. The psychologist promised to help, and I agreed. I began to actively engage participants, call, coordinate the time and place of the meeting, invite people.
– Did you succeed?
– At first no one came. Then two or three people started attending the meetings, then the number of the group members began to grow, more and more started coming. We united in an initiative group. That’s how my activism began.
– Initially, both men and women attended your group, why did you decide to concentrate on helping women?
– When I was registered in a female health clinic, where I found out about my diagnosis, I kept thinking that I wanted to help other women, so that they would overcome this way easier and were less vulnerable than I was at that time. Nobody helped me, except for the infectious disease doctor, the gynecologist, whom I met in specialized institutions, but it’s a different type of assistance.
Medical care is different from the support provided by social workers, psychologists, and equal consultants. I did not obtain sufficient assistance of this type, and I wanted other women who found themselves in the same situation to feel that there was a person who had already gone through this and could support them with a kind word or provide real help in more serious moments.
I made business cards, went to a female health clinic and suggested that the Director would give them to all HIV-infected women who get enrolled. The Director said that they do not need my services. I was upset, but I went to the Chief Doctor and had a very emotional conversation with him, trying to convince that my initiative was important. As a result, he allowed me to use the psychologist’s cabinet, where I worked with women on certain days. I also had the main job, which started at 9 am. Therefore, I came to the consultation at half past seven to have time for working with women.
– Wow! And you managed to do all this with a baby on your hands?
– My family, my mother and sister helped me a lot. I did not even go on maternity leave.
– In your opinion, what a woman leader is like?
– For me, a woman leader is one who persuade people to follow her, who can inspire by own example. I will not advise anything to a person unless I have experienced the same problems. I can interest people, motivate us to move towards our common goal only referring to my own example.
– Please tell us about your participation in the show “The Ukrainian Supermodel”.
– For me it was a decisive step. When I just learned about my HIV-positive status, I thought that only my doctor and my daughter would know about it (I understood that she too can be HIV-positive, and in this case we both would have to learn living with this). Nowadays, not only close people know about my status. I do not hide my status intentionally. The more we talk about this, the less stigma and discrimination will persist.
While prior to the show I thought about the place, time, circumstances, possible repercussions after the disclosure of the status, this is no longer necessary after the show. My diagnosis is part of my life, which everyone knows about. I am responsible for this, as well as for the consequences that can happen to me or to members of my family.
– And what happened after the show?
– Nothing happened. I did not receive a single negative news, or negative reaction, my life has not changed in any way. Those people who did not know about my diagnosis began to ask questions, and I find this to be quite positive. I have never had a situation in my life when someone refused to communicate with me because of HIV, quite on the contrary.
Due to the experience gained in the work in the HIV field, now we can expand the horizons, we feel the strength to tackle some more global topics related to the health system, women’s health and other relevant areas.
– You work in Ukraine, but you are quite familiar with the Russian experience. Can you list some key differences in working in the HIV servicing area in Ukraine and in Russia?
– We recently had a significant event: our activist, Olga Stefanishina, who worked in the All-Ukrainian Network of People living with HIV, and lead the organization “Patients of Ukraine” thereafter, has now become Deputy Minister of Health for European Integration. This is a story about opportunities: there are no barriers if you have a goal, if you clearly understand what you want to do and how you want to do it. During the last two years Ukraine had a great progress, I can see and feel it. Now the health care reform is in active phase. This is a real reform, which is now being implemented in practice, while what we had before was 5 years of futile talks. This is an irreversible process. There are already changes, but there will be even more to come. We really focus on the “90-90-90” strategy. For example, when a patient is identified as HIV-positive, they are immediately prescribed therapy, questions about the CD4 cells level and viral load are no longer discussed. Of course, therapy is provided after certain tests. But IV infection itself is the key indication for the appointment of therapy. Medications are procured, the last two years there are no supply interruptions.
In Russia there are active people and very strong organizations. There are certain activities that look innovative even for me.
– For example?
– This is not exactly an innovation, but I was impressed by the preventive services that carry on working despite the difficult situation with drug policy − syringe exchange, condom distribution among sex workers, among people who use drugs. The powerful LGBT movement is really inspiring. In general, it seems to me that the most active and most advanced organizations in the HIV field operate in St. Petersburg. This city is championing in the HIV response area throughout Russia.
– Which of your achievements make you feel most proud of?
– My daughter is my greatest pride. She’s not very easy-going, but she has a huge potential. She is not a conformist type of person; she defends her opinion. She can already resist me. I already listen to her opinion, I respect it, although she is only 17 years old. I am proud of her achievements: for example, she was able to learn English herself, got admitted to the best gymnasium in our city and graduated from it. My daughter’s perseverance and knowledge helped her a lot.
– A woman leader?
– Yes, of course. She sets her goals and achieves them.