“I was born in a small, provincial town. Any LGBT [Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transsexual] activity was out of the question there. Everything changed when I moved to Kryvy Rih [Dnipropetrovsk region].
First thing I noticed was that there were several projects for the LGBT community both Community Service Organization-implemented ones and those implemented by initiative groups. This made me happy and relieved and gave me a feeling of novelty and the expectation of new big developments and adventures. One of the projects I enrolled into was Mpowerment.”
Andrey*, like so many young gay and bisexual men in Ukraine, has struggled to find an accepting community, where he can openly share and discuss interpersonal issues. Creating an accepting environment that promotes open dialogue about safer sexual practices is vitally important; the latest data collected among men who have sex with men in Ukraine shows that HIV prevalence in that population in 2013 was 5.6% nationally and 7.8% in Andrey’s home region of Dnipropetrovsk. Some factors driving this high HIV prevalence among men who have sex with men include non-recognition of risky sexual behavior, lack of skills to negotiate safe sex, lack of support networks, lack of safe sexual behavior norms as well as widespread stigma by the general population and service providers.
The Mpowerment initiative, implemented by USAID’s RESPOND project and funded through the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), reduces rates of unprotected sex among young gay and bisexual men by addressing individual, interpersonal, social, structural and environmental issues. Unlike other HIV prevention approaches that focus on changing men’s attitudes about safer sex, or their recognition of sexual risk, the Mpowerment methodology addresses interpersonal issues, social support, and altering the social environment. Mpowerment also supports HIV testing, and encourages HIVpositive men to obtain health care and HIV treatment. Mpowerment is sometimes referred to as a combination HIV prevention program because helping to enroll HIV-positive men into treatment supports HIV prevention efforts.
Andrey is a college student. He used to be very tense, he felt worried and uncomfortable, not being able to relax after classes. Participating in Mpowerment helped Andrey focus on his studies while providing “the opportunity to meet new people and, possibly, a future loved one. Also, it was a chance for self-realization through active participation in the project.” Most importantly, Andrey says, “I participated in many activities. I began feeling part of the team with whom I like to spend time and who would help me if needed. I will celebrate this New Year with a person I love! And I have achieved the internal goals I set - I feel happy and confident and able to live a meaningful life, with love…”
*Full name withheld to protect identity
Author: Andrey Pilipchuk
Photo by Yelena Zaikona
Photo: M-group on a picnic