Sergey Uchaev was 27 years old - a young man in the prime of life - when he was diagnosed with HIV. In Uzbekistan, a country with few HIV/AIDS specialists and widespread discrimination against people with the disease, Uchaev’s diagnosis meant much more than dire health consequences.
It also meant demoralizing exclusion from mainstream society.
“I did not see the way out of my situation,” recalls Uchaev, a reformed heroin addict who acquired the HIV virus through needle sharing. “The doctors told me that I would live for a short period of time and then – no longer exist.”
As AIDS continues to ravage communities throughout the world, medical treatment is the obvious first-line defense. But discrimination against people living with HIV/AIDS derail efforts to control the epidemic. Deep stigmas are hampering efforts to prevent further infections, provide adequate care, support and treatment to people with the disease, and help communities cope with the devastating effects of HIV/AIDS.
From his home in Tashkent, Uzbekistan’s capital city, Uchaev decided to fight the discrimination he faced. He mobilized other HIV-positive people and formed an organization to provide emotional support and to spread awareness about the disease. He called his group “Ishonch va Hayot,” a name that means “Hope and Live” in Uzbek.
Around the same time, Mercy Corps Uzbekistan recognized the need to address HIV/AIDS as part of its work to empower citizens throughout the impoverished region. The resulting “Empowerment of People Living with HIV/AIDS” program identifies and advocates for legislation, regulations and policies that help HIV-positive people enjoy fundamental human rights.
Mercy Corps gave Uchaev’s group the financial and technical boost it needed to become an effective voice for people living with HIV/AIDS. Working with World Vision International and a humanitarian group based in Kazakhstan, Mercy Corps provided a permanent place for support-group meetings, a clear plan of project activities and an effective monitoring and evaluation system.
For Uchaev, the support couldn’t have come at a better time. “We were looking for partners who would support us and help build our capacity,” says Uchaev. “We did not know what to do and how to plan our activities.”
Since its founding, Ishonch va Hayot has reached thousands of people with HIV/AIDS – consulting more than 2,000 last year alone – and thousands more with its prevention and awareness messages. Last September, more than 1,500 people attended a social event the organization hosted in one of Tashkent’s biggest public parks. The event included a performance, contests, small-group workshops and question-and-answer sessions especially targeted toward youth and at-risk groups.
Ishonch va Hayot is building on its success in Uzbekistan to help raise HIV/AIDS awareness region-wide. Uchaev recently attended an international HIV/AIDS conference in St. Petersburg, Russia, where participants agreed to establish a network of nonprofits working with people with HIV/AIDS throughout Central Asia based on a successful European model.
“Our goal is to change people’s attitudes about people with HIV/AIDS,” says Uchaev. “We want people to accept us not as hopeless people, but as an active part of society. We want to raise the government’s and people’s awareness, and to be heard on these issues.”
Mercy Corps is proud to help amplify their voice.