I’m Vielta Parkhomenko, and I live in Ukraine. Fourteen years ago, I became an activist. Before that, I felt like a stranger in this world. Many people stigmatised me for using drugs and being ill. But when I entered ENEY Club, my life drastically changed. This organisation offers friendly support and services to people who use drugs. Thanks to them, I began to believe in the possibility of change. They offered me what I needed – clean needles and an HIV test, and I started to accept myself. Now, I’m able to safely use drugs and stay healthy. The harm reduction programme saved my life! However, I still face stigmatisation when I visit medical institutions for a blood test. I have problems with my veins as a result of using drugs, and sometimes doctors judge me, asking why I use drugs. But they should support me rather than stigmatise me. As an activist, I want to change this situation. I’m committed to fighting injustices done to people like me. My mission is to ensure equal rights for everyone in Ukraine, regardless of their lifestyle.

I organise advocacy activities to make people who use drugs more visible in society. In addition, I participate in committees at the national level to improve access to quality health and social services for key populations, including people who use drugs, sex workers and LGBT people. And I’m the chairperson of the Women and Harm Reduction International Network (WHRIN), a global platform to reduce the harms associated with drug use by women.

Ten years ago, key populations were seen as the source of the HIV epidemic, but now we are the solution to end HIV!

AIDS 2018 was the first conference I have attended. It was great that key populations had a prominent role in the programme, as their involvement in creating and financing HIV programmes is crucial. ‘Nothing for us without us’ – these are not just words. Key populations must fully participate in the HIV response. Moreover, I was happy that much attention was paid to the challenges of young people.

Another good conference topic was the collaboration between different key populations. We are diverse, but we want similar changes. Our goals centre around human rights, gender equality and health. Because key populations have joined forces in Ukraine, the government is now more inclined to listen to us and realise that key populations face the same challenges. Also, stigmatisation between key populations is decreasing – we speak to each other and see that we have much in common.

In Ukraine, different key populations advocate together for a national drug policy. We are also involved in developing a national HIV/AIDS strategy and creating standards for harm reduction services, such as respecting key populations’ human rights. Ten years ago, key populations were seen as the source of the HIV epidemic, but now we are the solution to end HIV! The AIDS conference made me realise again: only together can we save our lives.