Ukrainian PITCH partner advocates for inclusion of women who use drugs at UN

Ukrainian PITCH partner advocates for inclusion of women who use drugs at UN

The voice of Ukrainian women who use drugs was heard at the UN’s Economic and Social Council’s in Geneva in February 2020. Yanina Stemkovskaya, a representative of the PITCH supported and developed Ukrainian Network of Women who Use Drugs (UNWUD; Ukrainian: Всеукраїнське об'єднання наркозалежних жінок ВОНА) and Ukrainian Network of People who Use Drugs (PUD.UA/ VOLNA) used her personal story to highlight the realities of Ukraine’s repressive drug policy. In Ukraine, an estimated 350,000 people who inject drugs, with every third consumer being a woman.

Yanina at the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland
Yanina at the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland

 

Ukraine's implementation of Article 12 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, as it concerns the access of drug users to medical services, was discussed at the 67th session of the ECOSOC in Geneva, Switzerland. Here is the full text of her speech on 17 February 2020:

 

"My name is Yanina, and I represent the Ukrainian Network of People who Use Drugs (PUD.UA/ VOLNA) and Ukrainian Network of Women who Use Drugs (UNWUD/ VONA). 10 years ago, I had to make one of the most difficult decisions in my life to openly disclose not only my HIV-positive status and Hepatitis C, but also my drug dependence. To wipe my entire reputation that I have earned over the years with one sentence. The things I feared the most was being fired from work and condemnation by my relatives and friends, but the future of the substitution therapy program, of which I am a client, was at stake.

In our country, if a drug-dependent woman turns sick, she must choose whether to go to a hospital and face grave consequences, or stay at home, risking not only her health but also her life. As soon as the doctors in the hospital found out that I was addicted to drugs, they threatened to deprive me of my parental rights. And I, having fled from the hospital, was forced to hide with my daughter moving from place to place until the social services “forgot” about me. My daughter grew up with me. But even today, this drug addiction may be the basis for the deprivation of parental rights. At the same time – upon entering the state program of substitution therapy, I am automatically labelled as a drug user, hence putting me at risk for losing my parental rights.

Legally, “drug use” in Ukraine is decriminalized, but “possession and purchase” is criminally punishable. How can I consume a substance without acquiring it and without having it in my possession?

In 2018, 84% of all people convicted for drug-related crimes were convicted of possession for personal use. I myself was once one of these convicts. According to existing legislation, even the amount of narcotic substances remaining in the syringe after it was used is enough to initiate a criminal case. In this regard, in our country, the disposal of syringes, which are distributed to people who use drugs through harm reduction programs, has practically been stopped.

With the transition of harm reduction programs to state funding, the number of services fell sharply, and the quality of those that remained has greatly deteriorated. A striking example is the quality of substitution therapy drugs, for which the main procurement criterion is low price. As a result, due to the low quality of the drug, the daily dosage is not enough, and the patient is looking for solutions to this problem - he stops taking antiretroviral therapy, returns to street drugs, or is forced to buy replacement drugs at his own expense in order to normalize his condition.

Now I am proud that I was not afraid then and was able to defend my right to treatment in the Substitution Therapy program. That first experience of mine made me believe that it is possible and necessary to fight for myself and other people with drug dependence.

I ask the Committee to urge the Government of Ukraine to stop prosecuting people who use drugs and to abolish all forms of punishment for the possession of substances for personal use and ensure the provision of health and social services instead.

Thank you!"

 

Currently, the minimum limit doses of narcotic drugs that a person can carry with them in Ukraine, without the risk of criminal prosecution, are so low that any amount of narcotic substance leads to the initiation of criminal proceedings. There are also high levels of stigma and discrimination against people who use drugs, to the extent that the Family Code of Ukraine includes the discriminatory norm that ‘drug dependence’ can be a direct cause for deprivation of parental rights, and is currently the only disease on the basis of which a decision on the removal of a child from the family can be made.

Ukraine’s Substitution Maintenance Therapy (SMT) program, which was introduced in 2004, only covers approximately 5% of the people who inject opioid drugs  currently. The high level of criminalization of drug use and the so-called "drug use registration” (registry of people who use drugs) are the main reasons for the low popularity of SMT programs. Another reason is the poor quality of SMT drugs purchased by the state for the program. An independent examination of one of the drugs showed that the test sample lacked 25% of the active substance. The barriers to access harm reduction programs (specifically SMT) for women are significantly higher due to intersectional stigma and frequent discrimination. The aforementioned narcotics and discriminatory norms of the Family Code make mothers and women in general more vulnerable to manipulation by doctors, police, and other family members.

 

It was incredibly exciting, because in my voice was the voice of my whole community. To bring these important issues to the forefront using my own personal history as a drug user, and that of my community members from my country, is not an easy task

 

Yanina also engaged with policymakers during a closed session on where the challenges of Ukraine's drug policy and its impact on women were discussed in more detail.

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