How teenagers in Ukraine seek social justice amid conflict

By Sarah Oughton, Yana Panfilova

Sarah Oughton, communications advisor, talks to Yana Panfilova, executive director of Teenergizer in Ukraine

Ahead of International Youth Day (12 August) celebrating young people’s contributions to social justice and peace, meet Yana Panfilova – an inspiring young activist from Ukraine.

Yana PanfilovaYana Panfilova from Ukraine is a young activist seeking social justice for people living with HIV

Yana learnt that she was living with HIV when she was ten. Then six years ago, at age 16 she founded Teenergizer – a youth HIV advocacy organisation.

In 2017, Yana also joined the Y+ READY Fellowship Project. The one-year fellowship focuses on developing and supporting a new generation of young leaders to be advocates in the global HIV response. It is implemented by the Global Youth Network of Young People Living with HIV (Y+), the Global Network of People Living with HIV (GNP+) and the International HIV/AIDS Alliance.

Since the conflict in Ukraine started in 2014 how has it affected young people living with HIV?

Some of the centres for adolescents living with HIV in the occupied territories have closed. There is now a lack of prevention work, as well as peers, counsellors and psychologists who can provide support to adolescents living with HIV.

Also, lots of teenagers have had to move cities. As they start to speak about their HIV status to others, they face discrimination. Knowing how to adapt in these social situations is difficult and many are not ready for this.

What does Teenergizer do?

We advocate for better services for young people living with HIV, and best practice in schools, such as access to better sexual and reproductive health and rights education, and access to HIV testing starting from age 14.

One of the main issues is the lack of services available for teenagers to learn their status. Legally there must be at least one specialist to provide psychological consultations in each HIV testing point. Yet many people that just discovered they are living with HIV are left alone. It’s complicated for them to get the right information and support. We are providing this, specifically for teenagers.

How are young people in the occupied territories coping?

The main problems teenagers face is they do not have any support, and they feel lonely. Their parents may have died or they may have left them. And when they move to new cities they don’t know who to go to for support.

Through our online service at Teenergizer we provide peer counsellors for free. Recently I was talking to a 14-year-old girl who had already had about 10 sexual partners and she wasn’t using any protection, despite being worried about HIV. I spent two months talking to her, providing support and encouraging her to get tested. Luckily when she got tested, she found she was not HIV positive. And as a result of our conversations she said she was going to start using condoms.

Why is peace particularly important for young people living with HIV?

Young people who are living with HIV in conflict situations have a lot of complex problems, their lives are full of stress, they may have to flee without parents or stay where bombs are falling, and HIV is not the first issue for them. They do not always get access to medicines and even if they do have medicine available, their chaotic environment may mean they forget to take them. Obviously peace is one of the most important things, without which it can be difficult for them to focus on their health. 

How does your work contribute to inclusion, social justice, and peace?

Our work is to help teenagers consider themselves as leaders who can support each other and this is how Teenergiser grows and expands. They’re not there as patients but as leaders.

Many of our activists are teenagers displaced from East Ukraine and we support projects that are connected to conflict prevention. Also we are planning to establish a project in East Ukraine dedicated to breaking barriers between people from different regions.

What drives you as a leader and as someone who wants to build inclusive societies?

The main driver for me is the feeling of social injustice. I believe teenagers are a forgotten generation. If we can build a new generation of leaders, we can build a friendlier world for teenagers and it is in our hands to change it.

What is one of your proudest achievements?

When the Global Fund stopped its programme for adolescents it was expected that  the Ukrainian government would step in. The state failed to do this, so the Global Fund returned. But at the beginning of negotiations about what the Global Fund would pay for, there were no prevention services for teenagers included. We successfully lobbied to get that changed.

I also feel privileged for the opportunities I have to represent the voice of adolescents living with HIV on a global platform. I don’t know many teenager-activists in Eastern Europe and Central Asia who would represent their own voice, as many don’t know English.

I want to help build a stronger community of teenagers in our region, to prepare strong youth leaders, so that together we can advocate for our rights and get the government to pay attention.