Adolescents living or working on the streets in Ukraine
Blog by Olena Sakovych, Youth and Adolescents Officer, UNICEF Ukraine
Most-at-risk adolescents (MARA) continue to be at the core of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Ukraine. The UNICEF Country Programme is targeting MARA because they are the group most vulnerable to HIV, and yet these young people rarely use prevention and treatment services. MARA is a missing face of the HIV epidemic in my country, and one of my objectives is to make MARA visible in the political agenda and country HIV/AIDS response.
Therefore I have been recently involved in collecting data on MARA especially those living or working on the streets. I joined a group of outreach workers and we went to the sites where the street youth live and hide from the police. We have seen three groups of children located in different parts of the city – the biggest bunch was found camping at the railways almost in the centre of the city; another one has settled down in the tubes not far from the big Super Market and we also have met a nice couple living together in the basement of the big apartment house.
Each of the meetings made me feel concerned and eager to help, to understand how it could happen that so many children are left out of their families, care and support systems. I was very impressed by a story of the underage young mother, slim girl with big beautiful eyes, caring for an 8 months child, lying on the pile of rags. Her name is Oksana and she lost a connection with her mother when she was imprisoned for a small crime five years ago, then Oksana stayed for some time with her step farther but ran way from home because he abused her.
Oksana does not want to come back home, she dreams to find her mother one day and she wants her son to have a family and home. What are the chances this dream will come true? The children like Oksana do not trust adults and it takes a lot of time and effort to build the relations and integrate such children and youth to community.
One of our activities is to ensure a work of the outreach teams on the streets, to train the social and health care workers, to provide access of the street youth to the basic health, education services and housing.
These teenagers are most at risk of HIV infection because of social factors and their behaviour. So it is essential that this group of young people can also access services and information so that they can prevent themselves getting infected and keep healthy.
In June we have launched a Report on MARA and HIV. The research confirmed that estimated level of the HIV prevalence among MARA is very high - much higher than among their older counterparts, a level of the service provision is very low, and the access to the services is very limited. The data received are really striking and they call for action. For example, some 15.5 per cent of teenagers living or working on the streets have injecting drug use experience. Two thirds of these claimed to have shared needles during the last month. Every tenth boy living or working on the streets has practised anal sex with a male, and half of these have received money, clothes, drugs or other compensation for having done so.
It is the first time in Ukraine we have such comprehensive research among the most at risk adolescents. Now we have evidences that give us a hope for active actions from the government that will not leave aside this vulnerable group. We have to act now, because the society where children are ill and die does not have a future.