Judith Kreukels                      (AFEW International)

Judith Kreukels (AFEW International) shares her experience of the Bridging the Gaps Learning Institute 2018. The Learning Institute is an annual event, which brings together country, regional and alliance partners of Bridging the Gaps, to learn, share and discuss a theme that is relevant for all the key populations involved in the programme:  “It is at the end of the Learning Institute that we have all come to realise that in civil societies where space is shrinking, we must work together because in unity there is strength”.

 Welcome in Bishkek

It is the night before the Learning Institute will take place in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. This is my first time in Kyrgyzstan, a country in Central Asia that shares its borders with China, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. Its capital, Bishkek, is located in the central part of the Chuj Valley, at the foot of the Ala-Too mountains and counts nearly a million citizens. Kyrgyzstan is also one of our country partners and a country that sadly still has a high prevalence of new HIV infections. Over the last 7 years we have seen the HIV incidence in fact increase by sixty per cent in Eastern Europe and Central Asia. It is in Kyrgyzstan that the Learning Institute 2018 takes place.

This year’s theme: Shrinking space for civil society

While we gather for an introductory session of all participants of the Learning Institute on the evening prior to the actual kick-off, I notice how diverse the group of 35-so participants is. From Georgia and Russia to Vietnam, Myanmar, Zimbabwe and South Africa. We have all come a long way to share our experiences on this year’s theme ‘shrinking space for civil society’. I myself am from the Netherlands and work for AFEW International, one of the alliance partners in Bridging the Gaps. AFEW is a network organisation with a focus on Eastern Europe and Central Asia, striving to promote health and increase access to prevention, treatment and care for major public health concerns such as HIV, TB, viral hepatitis, and sexual and reproductive health.

A PhD in sex work

We are a diverse group of participants, not only in nationality but also in background. Next to NGO service providers and health staff, there are gay men and women, bi-sexuals, sex workers, transgenders, queers, people who use drugs and HIV positive men and women. People who face serious (legal) restrictions and threats to their civic freedoms in their countries. These are people who still have the courage to speak up against their government while they experience daily stigma and discrimination. Not only from society but also from their own family and friends! These people are the experts when it comes to their sexual and reproductive rights and public health issues such as HIV, TB and Hepatitis C. Or as one of the female sex workers nicely puts it  “I might not have a master, but I have a PhD in sex work”.

In unity there is strength

There was indeed an incredible amount of expertise present among them. Through engaging in different interactive exercises and workshops, listening to each other’s presentations, networking and linking up, this initial diverse group came to realise that they have many similarities and there is much to learn from each other. Whereas at day one it seemed birds of a feather flock together, it is at the last day of the Learning Institute that they have come to realise that in unity there is strength. And it is exactly this unification between communities like LGBT, PWUD and sex workers that is so important in countries where civil society space is shrinking.

When saying goodbye to the participants, I spoke to a health staff member in South Africa and asked her if she was put off by the idea of the long journey back home. “No” she said “I don’t mind. I am so inspired by the Learning Institute, I can’t wait to get home and help the transgender 55+ community I work with and bring the knowledge I have gained here into practice”.

A big thank you from me to everyone I have met during the Learning Institute and who shared their experiences with me!  

2018 Bridging the Gaps Learning Institute participants