Womanplus.info is an online digital platform that was originally created to provide advice to women living with HIV in two Russian regions and has since extended to several other countries as well as the entire Russian territory. Legal Dialogue interviewed project manager Ekaterina Artemenko about the needs of women with HIV, the platform’s efforts to help refugees, and the challenges of working under sanctions.
The digital platform developed as part of the two-year project “Advancing the Activism and Rights of HIV-Positive Women in the Russian Federation” with support from the UN Democracy Fund was launched on 1 December 2020.
The purpose of this digital resource is to help HIV+ women find answers to questions they may still have after a face-to-face appointment with their doctor at the AIDS center, given that doctors at our clinics have limited time with patients. The platform is often accessed by women who have recently been diagnosed with HIV and are not sure what their next steps should be. Other frequent users include women struggling to accept their diagnosis and those who consider having a baby. Recently, we have seen an increasing demand for legal advice.
Nine specialists currently provide advice via the platform: two infectious disease doctors, two gynecologists, a pediatrician, a psychologist, two peer counselors, and a lawyer. All services are free for the women seeking help.
To date, we have provided some 800 consultations, and counting.
In addition to accessing professional advice, users can read real-life stories of women who have accepted their HIV diagnosis. Other publications include interviews with doctors and peer counselors. The purpose of these stories is to reduce stigma and discrimination against women with HIV and to show that one can still have a successful career and be a mother to HIV-negative children.
About the project’s geography
Originally, the project was designed for just two Russian regions: Rostov and Nizhny Novgorod. These locations were selected because we had been collaborating with local NGOs and conducting offline events together.
After we launched the digital platform for the two project regions, women from elsewhere in Russia learned about it through word of mouth and began using the resource. Access to the platform was then restricted to users from Russia, but our peer counselors reported being in correspondence via social media with women from Kazakhstan, Belarus and Kyrgyzstan; women from Ukraine were also contacting them for advice. We asked our technical partners to add access codes to the platform for these countries. Today, the platform is officially accessible from Russia and from some other countries in Eastern Europe and Central Asia.
On most frequent questions and requests
Most of our visitors are relatively young, under-50 women who have recently learned about their HIV diagnosis. Another large category includes more experienced patients seeking advice, e.g., on changing their ART regimen. Some women ask for a psychologist’s advice on how to tell their partner or family about their HIV, and more generally, how to learn to live with the diagnosis. The most sought-after specialists, however, are infectious disease doctors whom patients usually approach for a second opinion.
About legal advice
While few women sought legal advice when the platform was first launched, today we are seeing an increasing number of such requests.
Why would a woman living with HIV require the services of a lawyer? Women often seek legal advice when they need protection, e. g. against unauthorised disclosure of their diagnosis, or in the sphere of employment when a woman gets fired under some pretext, but the real reason is her HIV status.
When we extended the project’s geography, we began receiving requests from migrant workers about being legally in Russia despite HIV. We have recently been approached by a young woman from Moldova about her HIV-related deportation. Russia is one of the few countries that still deports foreigners diagnosed with HIV. One of our lawyers has been working to help this woman from Moldova return to Russia.
About helping refugee women
In recent months, a new group of women in need of legal advice includes refugees from Ukraine trying to legalise their stay in Russia. They ask many questions, e. g. where to register so they may continue taking ART? Is it possible to continue taking ART without getting registered? Can they get a job if they live with HIV? How to apply for a temporary residence permit? How to get protection in case of unauthorised disclosure of the diagnosis?
Our lawyer has filed a formal request with Rospotrebnadzor asking to clarify whether the norm on HIV-related deportation applies to people with HIV from Donetsk and Luhansk regions and other parts of Ukraine who do not have close relatives in Russia. Having close relatives who are Russian citizens is the main way for a foreigner with HIV to avoid deportation. The agency replied in general terms without specific details.
However, in an earlier case of a Ukrainian woman without relatives in Russia, Rospotrebnadzor provided a slightly more specific explanation: “Should a foreigner diagnosed with HIV provide information that they are on treatment and do not pose a threat of spreading the disease, this argument will be taken into account when making the decision on whether or not their stay in Russia is undesirable.” Only time can tell what the outcome will be in the current case.
As for ART availability, as far as I know, it is currently available to any Ukrainian in Russia who applies for it. However, the components necessary for manufacturing antiretroviral drugs are imported either from Europe or from India. Today, there are problems with logistics in this sphere, as well as in many other spheres. Some patients are even trying to stock up on ART drugs to avoid potential interruptions.
About the future
Our current situation is, of course, not so good. Although our experts’ fees are merely symbolic, we still need some funding to maintain the digital platform.
Our Dutch partners have promised to come back to us regarding future support. I hope they will find a way to help us.