By Natalie Flath, past SunErgos Intern working with EVA in St Petersburg.
On March 8th was International Women’s Day which is very well celebrated in Russia! Babushka’s were selling beautiful, soft puffy yellow flowers at every street corner. Every woman receives a compliment or praise. It is a Russian National holiday!
The theme for this women’s day is Inspiring Change. I couldn’t feel this notion more deeply on this day with the women that I work with here. I’ve been working with a women’s organization, EVA, a network of activists fighting to improve the lives of women and children living and affected by HIV all across Russia for one year. The women who I’ve had the privilege to grow in friendship with have not only inspired me as a young woman, but are at the forefront of engendering new women to lead in ending AIDS. These women are improving the medical and social well being of the entire society through their shared and focused efforts including their husbands, boyfriends, children, co-workers, and friends.
These women bravely share their stories in the media. They challenge the notion of fear of disease and awaken our shared roots in a broken human family. They show us that disease affects us all. They stand up to their government and demand appropriate gender based services to support their families. They are struck with domestic violence, subordinating work, and discrimination. That doesn’t discourage but boosts strength to rise above.
When I look back at my initial inspiration that drove me to move to St Petersburg and reflect on what I’ve had the privilege to experience, I now see the bigger picture. When I moved here, I thought that I would help with an international adoption campaign for HIV+ children, since these children are unlikely to be domestically adopted due to heavy circulating stigmas to HIV and restrictive domestic adoption policies.
I soon became victim to international politics and had to redirect my attention to something else when Russia banned Americans from adopting their orphans. I suppose it was ignorance on my behalf because I thought I could actually help out as an empathetic, Russian-rooted, advocate. However, it was after I lived here for one year and had built lasting relationships that I started to understand my limitations and contributions as a foreigner.
I haven’t done anything that a Russian woman couldn’t have done here. I was a volunteer and an extra pair of hands. Volunteer culture is scarce and community organizations don’t have funds for small projects, so I as well as Gia, the other English speaking intern, we filled a niche. We’ve done all sorts of things from helping design projects, write grants, work with international partners, and volunteer with their partnering organizations. We have been leading English lessons for over one year at a community launched kindergarten and after school program designed for families affected by HIV and AIDS. We have stayed loyal to our lessons and have barely missed a day!
The children’s English isn’t that much better but the importance is that we have built relationships with the kids and the staff. I now better understand the needs of children affected by a socially significant disease in this city and as a result have crafted a mentorship program that has just been launched.
The women of EVA, who have overcome challenges associated with HIV/AIDS are peer counselors, small group leaders, psychologists, teachers, and eager to volunteer with HIV+ children. I noticed this desire but also the lack of funding and disorganization for planning activities. I found money from St. Petersburg’s International Women’s Club and have since launched a mentorship program for organized visits to the kindergarten and the infectious disease orphanage.
A recent psychology study was published showing that neglect in Romanian orphanages during young childhood years resulted in slurred brain development. The professor heading the study from Harvard said that the brains were actually smaller by the time they were in teenagers. “The scientists realized the cause wasn’t anything as simple as malnutrition. It was a different kind of deprivation — the lack of a parent, or someone who acted like a parent.”
These women, who are Russian, have experience with a shared health condition, and wholeheartedly volunteering, are the mentors that need to be supported. I will leave St. Petersburg, but EVA’s women will not. I will leave knowing that I haven’t just abandoned the problem – but that I have created a sustainable solution by bridging HIV+ leaders with HIV+ orphans. I have sustained the need for relationship, love and acceptance. Not only will these women walk with these children through life, but they are actively building the connections between public and community services. They are voices for the children and developing a system that are structurally paving a brighter future for these children. EVA has just finished training a few dozen peer consultants who will link HIV+ women and their families to public family centers who console about other vital life services.
Dr. Slava, a physician who SunErgos International partners with could not offer us, as a volunteer, a position at HIV+ baby orphanage over a year ago because of political and administrative precautions. At first I was frustrated with international politics, but now that I see the big picture. I understand that it was for the best. Instead of spending only a sliver of time with these kids, I spent that time behind the scenes, working to create sustainable solutions that prevent new babies born with HIV, support families living with HIV and connect lifelong mentorships.
I always looked up to Dr. Slava. He’s a goodhearted, patient doctor. When we visited him, a year ago, we asked about his thoughts on programs for the growing population of children living with HIV. He told us that his oldest child still living in the orphanage system is 12 years old. He emphasized the importance of targeting pre-teen and teen groups living with HIV and the window of opportunity for such projects.
As these young people develop their self-identities and self-worth, they will have to face all the factors in society that contribute to stigma, access to healthcare and overall pursuit of a healthy, loving, productive life. By providing these children with dignity through a trustworthy relationship, as through the mentorship project, these children will live better.
We also asked him about how we can support these children outside of the orphanage. Dr. Slava told us that out of more than 5,000 HIV+ mothers registered in the city, only 1,080 consistently visit the Center of AIDS for treatment and prevention. Dr. Slava shared the importance of women having access to special resources that help them plan their pregnancies and avoid having babies born with HIV.
Our efforts in St. Petersburg are in light of the solutions that Dr. Slava envisions. I have worked in St. Petersburg alongside so many other dedicated individuals fighting for hope of these children. EVA, through national advocacy efforts, is creating sustainable solutions to solve the underlying crisis to support pregnant women who have HIV to reduce the transmission of the virus.
I will leave St. Petersburg this summer. It will be hard to leave my friends here but I believe that their efforts are far greater than what I could ever do and that inspires me. I’m inspired to continue to support them in the ways that I can as a foreign friend. They need financial support to keep the mentorship project organized. They hold monthly meetings to reflect on the activities and to create new ones. They need money to buy lunch and office materials. They need funds to buy activity supplies and to take the kids on city excursions. They need money for transportation. They need our prayers to continue their strength and dedication.
“I used to pray that God would feed the hungry, or do this or that, but now I pray that he will guide me to do whatever I’m supposed to do, what I can do. I used to pray for answers, but now I’m praying for strength. I used to believe that prayer changes things, but now I know that prayer changes us and we change things.” ~Mother Teresa
Hope you had a Happy International Women’s Day!
Natalie Flath is a SunErgos Intern working with EVA in St Petersburg; write to firstname.lastname@example.org with questions or comments.