Extreme circumstances in Romania in the Ceausescu regime of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s led to a high rate of HIV amongst institutionalized children, as a result of unscreened blood transfusions. Many of those children didn’t survive, but some of them are now young men and women living with HIV and AIDS. And yet, some of them are now facing yet another major inequality: lack of access to their life-saving HIV treatment. It seems to me extraordinary that such a situation is happening in the European Union.
I am 27 years old and have been living with HIV for over 10 years. I was diagnosed in 1999 in my home town, Bucharest. The news was so shocking that I immediately dropped out of school and isolated myself from the rest of the world for nearly two years. Once I came to terms with my status, I managed to go back into education and graduated from University in Philosophy and Journalism. Not long afterwards, I developed a lung condition. This was another huge ordeal because of the poor Romanian medical care system and their superficial approach to my health condition. When revisiting England in August 2008, my health deteriorated so much that I had to be hospitalised, and after several in-depth investigations I was diagnosed with aspergillosis. I was put on medication, and soon started feeling better and ready for a new chapter in my life.
Having decided to settle in England, I explored various self-development and work opportunities, though staying healthy remained my top priority. With little experience in Journalism I felt that my work background and education were worth nothing in this country, and that I had to start all over again.
I joined a few charities for people with HIV, initially seeking emotional support, counselling and complementary therapies. I soon reached a point in my life where I was happier, confident with myself and ready to put some of my skills into practice. I expressed an interest in volunteering with Positively Women magazine and The International Community of Women Living with HIV/AIDS, and started working as an editorial assistant, and occasional writer. Through volunteer work, workshops and training, I became more familiar with many of the issues that affect HIV-positive people and other marginalised groups, such as the LGBT and the African communities. Also, in a cosmopolitan environment such as London, I became more aware of some political, cultural and religious issues, especially affecting many young positive women. I have always felt that I had some liberal views, and luckily my family have always been very non-judgemental and supportive of me, regardless of my HIV status and sexual orientation, despite their living in a traditional society, fuelled by strong religious values, and decades under Ceausescu’s communist regime.
Romania, just like other Eastern European countries, finances its national AIDS response from domestic sources. This, in the context of the current global economic crisis has led to major difficulties in HIV treatment coverage. The XVIII International AIDS Conference to be held in Vienna this July is long awaited as it coincides with the 2010 deadline set by world leaders for reaching universal access to HIV prevention, treatment, care and support, a fundamental target in Combating HIV/Aids, Malaria and other diseases (one of the eight UN Millennium Development Goals to be achieved by 2015). The Women’s Networking Zone (WNZ) is a free parallel set of sessions, at the Conference. I am excited to be coordinating the media within the Zone. This will be an amazing opportunity to raise more awareness around the issues and rights of women and young women, particularly those who are HIV positive like me. We will create a solid platform where the huge challenges of stigma, discrimination, and the treatment crisis facing other positive young women like me – even in the EU - can be addressed. This year the WNZ focuses on the regional priorities for women across Europe and Central Asia, with a special emphasis on young women’s issues, about which to date scarcely anything is known in Europe. We will be launching a new survey we have just conducted of positive women across Europe, which will highlight, for example, the immense psycho-social effects that HIV has on women, even when treatment is available. We will be sharing similar experiences and knowledge from around the world and inspiring and empowering women, including myself. We will also be holding our European governments to account.
As an HIV-positive young Eastern European woman living in the UK, I can now see better how very inadequate and insufficient the general HIV response in Romania is. And I also now see that many issues, concerns and needs experienced by young woman, such as how to negotiate condom use, how to have equitable relationships, how to develop one’s self-esteem, how to have children free of HIV, are actually universal. I would encourage everyone to believe that knowledge is power, and I hope that at the WNZ I will be successful in speaking up for all the women across the world whose voices cannot be heard.