My name is Janine Wildschut and I work for AFEW International , one of the partners in the Bridging the Gaps programme. AFEW International is responsible for the implementation of the People who Use Drugs (PUD) project, specifically in Georgia, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Ukraine. Recently I was in Nairobi to participate in the Bridging the Gaps Learning Institute. In the plane, I realized how amazing it is to go to Kenya and come together with NGO service providers and key population community members.

We have come a long way

I started my work with People who Use Drugs in the shelters in Holland when harm reduction was still under big discussion. Worldwide The Netherlands was known for their tolerant attitude towards drugs, but within the country heavy debates were going on about safe places where people who use drugs could take their drugs more safely. Lots of discussion also if it was a good idea to give people safe injecting materials. Part of society was blaming us for stimulating drug use or worse, beating our people in our shelter. From these days till now so much has happened in Holland and harm reduction is now an accepted approach, although drug use still remains a subject for heated discussions. Now I am 45 years old, and at AFEW International I fully focus on the region in the world where HIV is still increasing: Central Asia. Here key populations are carrying a high burden of the disease and fighting a tough battle against exclusion, stigma and discrimination. It is inspiring to see where we are now, after 25 interesting years where I continued to look for ways and space for people who use drugs to be actively involved in all the work we do. Who would have thought then that now we have come so far that we can travel, work and raise our voices with communities from all around the world!

What does the concept of meaningful involvement mean?

During the preparations for the Learning Institute, I could see that the challenge for this week would be to really go deeper into the concept of meaningful involvement and community mobilization. These are the principles we work from, but what does it really mean, what is the nitty gritty that makes it really work and what are still the areas where we should improve? It will be exciting to see if we can get to the point that we can capture these specifics. When we get to know each other as a group it gets to me how much expertise is covered with these people. Community members from all kinds of communities are there: transgender people, males sex workers, bi-sexuals, queer people, female people who use drugs, HIV positive men and women, male drug users, female sex workers, Gay men and NGO service providers. My own AFEW partners from Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan seem excited to learn more from all this diverse people from so many places.

Respecting diversity

During the week, many interesting topics are discussed, from involvement in all aspects of the work by and for key populations to aspects to overcome internal exclusion. Each community also faces stigma and discrimination between and within key populations. Which to my understanding just proves that we are all just humans, with behavioral patterns that are observed between all human beings. At the end, it all comes down to respecting diversity between people. And this is beautifully shown during the inspiring field visit to Hoymas, a NGO that is running a clinic and a shelter for male sex workers. Apart from the highly energetic atmosphere in the organization, we can see and meet the full range of diversity, also expressed in the posters at the wall in each room saying:  

Another highly appreciated event we visited was the Sex Workers Academy closing ceremony, with dance, songs and testimonies of powerful sex workers from Kenya, Benin and Uganda.

Together we stand strong!

Looking back, the Learning Institute brought a wide variety of meaning to me, also unexpected ones: It made me aware again how powerful learning and exchange are. It showed that so many strong and powerful leaders exist among our communities and that together we stand strong! It also made clear what the challenges are; to bring specific new details into the discussion, and not just share familiar knowledge. But apart from this nitty and gritty on meaningful involvement, it also brought much more to all; networking took place, inspiration and energy grew, empowerment was tangible and new ideas were born! So we are already looking forward to next years Learning Institute, which will undoubtedly, be even more inspiring and energizing as this first edition was!

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