Empowering survivors and women living with HIV— Elena’s story, Ukraine

Gender-based violence is persistent in Ukraine. Physical violence, the threat or fear of violence, and the fear of destitution interact with other gender-based economic and social inequalities, such as discrimination in education, employment and access to health care, to significantly increase women’s vulnerability to HIV infection. The country has the highest HIV prevalence in Europe, a situation made worse by the on-going conflict in eastern Ukraine 1.

In this short film, Elena Vdovenko discusses how her HIV+ status and the domestic violence she and her children had survived informs her work. The violence was so bad that she confessed to a crime she had not committed, choosing to hide in prison – and stay alive – to escape her late husband’s harassment and attacks.  

An advocate for the rights of women living with HIV, Vdovenko is now a social worker at the Kyiv Centre for HIV-positive youth. When off work, Elena provides consulting on HIV, AIDS and TB on a telephone hotline. She also helps out at La Strada Ukraine, an international NGO, working to prevent domestic violence, gender discrimination and human trafficking. 

When HIV and domestic violence issues of the callers intersect, Elena Vdovenko offers ‘equal to equal’ counselling based on her personal experience. She says if she could escape and survive the violence, so can they.

A member of Kyyanka+, a peer support group for women living with HIV, Elena also works with UN Women partner Positive Women, a civil society organisation that advocates to include the legal and health care needs of women living with HIV in national laws and policies. This year, Positive Women is collaborating with UN Women on the 16 Days of Activism against Gender-based Violence Campaign to address violence women living with HIV experience in the health care system, particularly regarding their reproductive rights.


1 Human Rights of Women Living with HIV in Ukraine: Findings of Community-Based Research Through the Lens of CEDAW