Ms. Soltani led off the webinar by outlining the current epidemiological situation for HIV among people who use drugs (PWUD) and people in prisons, while also putting special focus on some of the key findings regarding these key populations from the UNAIDS report, “Unequal, unprepared, under threat”, which had been released on 29 November. She also honed in on five critical elements of the Global AIDS Strategy 2021-2026 that will be key to efforts to end AIDS within the next decade: community-led and community-based infrastructure; equitable access to medicines, vaccines and health technologies; supporting workers on the pandemic front lines; human rights at the centre of pandemic responses; and people-centred data systems that highlight inequalities. Ms. Soltani concluded her remarks by highlighting the 15 CSO grantees that UNODC had been supporting to implement projects related to Drug Use and HIV, HIV in Prison and Law Enforcement partnership in the HIV response, four of whom had representatives speak about their work as part of the webinar’s programme.
Ms. Soltani’s remarks were followed by a contribution bringing the perspective of people who use drugs to the webinar from Judy Chang, Executive Director of the International Network of People Who Use Drugs (INPUD). Ms. Chang’s presentation looked at the myriad ways that the community of PWUD are confronted with inequalities, barriers, harms, violence, stigma and discrimination, all of which have only been compounded by the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic colliding with the 40-year-old HIV/AIDS pandemic. She concluded by looking at steps and initiatives which could end these inequalities, including decriminalizing people who use drugs, addressing stigma and discrimination (including through protective legislation), funding advocacy and social and health care for people who use drugs and enabling community leadership at all levels and in all aspects.
The webinar then shifted to presentations from four representatives of community-led organizations that had implemented activities with UNODC grants in 2021. The first of these presentations came from Thinzar Tun, the Executive Director of Best Shelter in Myanmar. Ms. Tun focused in particular on the programs that her organization has conducted for women who use drugs, illuminating the specific intersecting barriers that this subgroup of PWUD faces while also talking about the kinds of interventions that Best Shelter has carried out that have made a difference in reaching out to women who use drugs and providing them with access to comprehensive services.
Ms. Tun was followed by Dingiswayo Banda, the Executive Director of the DreamWeaver Foundation in Malawi. Mr. Banda spoke about promoting access to lifesaving HIV treatments, including ART, in prison settings in Malawi, an initiative with particular salience given that HIV incidence is at least twice as high in prisons in Malawi as compared to community settings. Mr. Banda emphasized that providing adequate health care to people in prison living with or at risk of HIV must be considered holistically, not just involving direct HIV treatment and referrals but also mental health and nutritional services, as well as hygienic factors – the latter of which was put into starker relief in light with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Furthermore, these health and support services must have continuity, supporting clients living with HIV also after they have been released from prisons to promote their stability and independence.
The webinar continued with a presentation from Alexandra Dmitrieva and Vladimir Stepanov, co-founders of the Support, Research and Development Center in Ukraine. Ms. Dmitrieva and Mr. Stepanov spoke about training prison staff and law enforcement regarding harm reduction and human rights in prison settings, putting a particular focus on pushing for the implementation of needle and syringe programs in prisons. They mentioned that there was often initial resistance to ideas regarding human rights and harm reduction in prisons, but that their efforts towards education and outreach had made a difference in putting previously-entrenched lines of thought into question, as well as generating some incremental progress on the path towards prison
A brief, surprise closing statement was provided by Vinay Saldanha, Director of the Regional Support Team for Eastern Europe and Central Asia for UNAIDS, who expressed unwavering support for the work being down on the ground and at the grassroots by community-led organizations like the ones that were showcased at the webinar. UNODC thanks all of the participants for their impactful contributions to the webinar, and also for the crucial work that they do in the community every day to make an impact for key populations and close the gaps that will be key to ending AIDS by 2030.