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There is a way out. Widening a range of services for the most-at-risk adolescents in Mykolaiv region

© UNICEF/Ukriane/2012/V.Musienko
A group of girls is waiting or clients in the street of night Mykolayiv

It is dark on the highway on the outskirts of Mykolaiv. Now and again, the headlights catch silhouettes on the roadside. They are women who are selling sex.  A young girl stands away from the group of experienced adults. She is silent, gloomy and reluctant to communicate. Psychologists would refer to her as "reserved". This is Ira*. She is only 18 years old but knows much more about life than her peers.

When social workers from the Charitable Fund "Unitus", which is implementing a UNICEF-EU project for most-at-risk adolescents in Mykolaiv region, met her for the first time, Ira was avoiding all contact, not to mention conversation. She had an express-test right here, on the highway, in the mobile ambulance of the charitable organization. It revealed a multitude of sexually transmitted infections. Luckily, HIV was not among them, but the girl urgently needed treatment. But how can the girl be persuaded to go to the hospital if she behaves like a frightened hedgehog? She is scared of everyone, does not trust anyone, and opposes any attempts to start a conversation.
There is no place for trust in the heart of a child, who stays wherever she can - with friends and acquaintances - rather than go home, in order to avoid her mother who drinks and does not care about the girl. One day one of these acquaintances, a woman who had given Ira shelter, took Ira to "the streets". She told Ira that she is already a grown-up and the time has come to earn her own living.  

Ira's story is not an exception. Hundreds of adolescent girls end up putting their lives at risk due to domestic problems and lack of care from their family. They practice risky behaviours or even start living in the street. They have no one to talk to, to ask for advice and often have nowhere to go. Their own disadvantaged family and surroundings are the only role models they have. They cannot imagine a different life for themselves.

Ira is lucky. Social workers noticed her and started to visit her "workplace" more often. A few weeks of regular but nonintrusive meetings and conversations, including those with psychologist, paid off - Ira started to react to the offers of support and is now undergoing treatment. Ira also started to participate in events organized by the Fund for girls like her, including thematic workshops on HIV/AIDS prevention, a leaders' club, and beauty school. 

"We are amazed by Ira's transformation. Just few months ago she was totally reserved, apathetic and indifferent to what was happening to her. Now she looks alive. She visits us and talks to a psychologist. We hardly ever see her by the highway anymore. Right now she is working as a babysitter for the family of a friend and is enjoying it. Our goal at this stage is to show her that there is always a way out and it is possible to earn a living in other ways than selling her body on the streets", - says Anna Dobrynova, Social Bureau Manager at the charitable fund "Unitus".

Based on the estimates of CF "Unitus" specialists, there are about 500 most-at-risk adolescent girls in Mykolaiv only. They are in urgent need of social and psychological support. Mykolaiv is one of the cities most affected by HIV.  Every fifth female sex worker is an adolescent. (1). The majority practice unsafe sex. According to official data, 565 children under the age of 18 were registered at the dispensary in Mykolaiv region as of 1 October 2012. 171 of them are HIV-positive. (2) Hundreds of most-at-risk adolescents have never been tested for HIV and are therefore not included in official statistics.

© UNICEF/Ukriane/2012/V.Musienko
Taking express blood test for HIV

To slow down the spread of HIV/AIDS among adolescents, the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) jointly with the European Union have launched a project "Capacity building of non-governmental organizations in HIV/AIDS prevention, treatment and care for people, living with HIV". In the framework of this project, non-governmental organizations in Kyiv, Mykolaiv and Odessa receive support in providing services for adolescents, such as HIV counselling and testing, HIV prevention services, awareness raising events and distribution of informational materials among vulnerable adolescents.

Anna Dobrynova sees as the biggest challenge that this group of adolescents have not learned to trust anyone or how to transform their difficult life circumstances. "Adolescents should be taught how to solve their problems on their own and how to find the way out from crisis situations. Girls often end up working on the streets just because they do not know where and how they can get support or earn money to meet basic needs", - points out the representative of Mykolaiv Fund "Unitus".  

Olena Sakovych, Youth and Adolescent Development Specialist at UNICEF Ukraine, stated: "Ira's transformation is a success story. Many adolescent girls, who have to work on the streets like Ira does, face the risk of HIV infection. The new UNICEF project on HIV prevention among most-at-risk adolescents and youth will be implemented with EU support until 2014. We hope that many Ukrainian adolescents in difficult life circumstances will benefit from it". 

Ira is one of the first clients of the "Unitus" project and the initial changes in her life demonstrate that it is moving in the right direction. Adolescents are probably the most difficult target group. It is extremely hard to earn their trust and to reach their hearts. But when it is done, then the stalemate is over. According to Anna, although the UNICEF project only started a couple of months ago, the impact of the first few events for adolescent girls is already visible - they are sharing knowledge, supporting each other and inviting friends to the workshops. At least some of these girls will protect themselves from HIV infection and take the first steps towards changing their lives.

* The name is changed for ethical reasons.

(1) Report "Most-at-risk adolescents: the evidence base for strengthening the HIV response in Ukraine" - Kyiv, 2009, UNICEF.

(2) Aggregated data from ICF "International HIV/AIDS Alliance in Ukraine" based on data from the Regional Health Centre, Monitoring and Evaluation Unit at Mykolaiv Regional AIDS Centre and other health facilities.

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