If people believe in me, then I can do anything

UNICEF image

Yana Panfilova poses for a picture with "Get Tested" slogan written on her hand as she participates in an HIV prevention flash mob in Kyiv, Ukraine. / © UNICEF/Ukraine/Vlasova/2016

By Yana Panfilova

30 November 2016 – HIV has never stood in the way of 18-year-old Yana Panfilova. In fact, it’s only driven her forward.

“It inspired me and encouraged me to do more as an activist,” she says. “If people believe in me then I can do anything.”

Yana has spent the last eight years campaigning in her native Ukraine to raise awareness in a country with one of the worst rates of HIV infection in Europe. In 2015, around 220,000 people were living with HIV and most newly-registered cases of infection were among young people.

Yana first learned about her condition when she was 10 years old. Born to a mother who was addicted to drugs, Yana lived in an orphanage until she was three, when her (by then) drug-free mother was able to bring her back home. Now, together with her mother, Yana runs Teenergizer, a youth organization supporting teens with HIV who, as Yana knows from experience, often have nowhere to turn.

“I was sick and tired of other kids at school asking me, ‘What are those pills, what are you taking?’” she recalls. “I was lying and saying that they were for my heart. Suddenly, I realized that I am discriminating against myself by keeping silent on this issue – and I should change that. I thought that if I open up about my status, other teenagers will understand that they are not alone.”

Discrimination, misinformation and inadequate sex education can all be barriers to HIV testing in Ukraine. Only 10 per cent of adolescents and young people have had an HIV test and, although teenagers are legally allowed to take a test anonymously after the age of 14 years, doctors often won’t give them the results without their parents’ consent.

Yana also worries about teenagers getting the right treatment because prejudice stops many of them from taking antiretroviral drugs.

Teenergizer works to support young people by offering advice, campaigning for change, speaking in schools and monitoring test centers.

When she is not busy with Teenergizer or the UN Youth Advisory Panel in Ukraine, Yana studies at university. “I wrote my thesis and when I got a B, I asked my teacher why,” she laughs. “She said it was because I was late. And I said, “But I was giving a speech at the UN High Level Meeting in New York.’”

And Yana is not stopping there. She dreams about becoming the head of state one day. She wonders jokingly about how cool it would be to become the president or prime minister of Ukraine and stand up and say “I am HIV positive and I have a good life.”

Yana Panfilova is a student and activist in Ukraine.