In November, Louise van Deth (Executive Director of Aidsfonds) and Michaël Kensenhuis (Lobbyist at Aidsfonds) visited the Bridging the Gaps programme in Kyrgyzstan.

Winter had just hit Kyrgyz capital Bishkek when we arrived, resulting in beautiful (and cold) snow-covered streets. Kyrgyzstan is not a very well-known country in the Netherlands; the aim of our visit was to learn more about the HIV epidemic in the region.

At the Sex Worker organisation Tais Plus, they explained us that – although sex work is not criminalized in Kyrgyzstan – sex workers are anything but safe. We went on night-outreach with their mobile clinic that provided testing services for sex workers.  That night alone, we heard that 12 sex workers were arrested by the police. Most of them must hide, and there are concerns that the HIV epidemic will rise again because of violations by the local police towards this group.

We also visited Labryz and Kyrgiz Indico, two organizations that stand for the rights of the LGBT community. We were particularly touched by the personal stories of the young men and women working there. The traditional society makes it very difficult for them to come out, and they too are subjected to police violence. This further underlines the importance of combating stigma and discrimination.

Finally, we visited Asteria, a shelter for female drug users. The majority of HIV infections in Kyrgyzstan occur among drug users, although the number of infections through (hetero)sexual transmission has been increasing in recent years. The shelter provided a safe place for women (and sometimes also their children).

We were impressed by the many brave men and women we met, that do great work for vulnerable or key affected populations. Some, unfortunately, cannot show their faces but nonetheless tirelessly continue their work aimed at a world without AIDS, free from stigma and discrimination.

We thank AFEW International for their support in setting up the program and their company during the trip.