In time for World AIDS Day, Galia Kutranova, Russia Country Representative for Tearfund, launches a new report into the links between sexual violence and substance abuse in Russia.
I was ten before I ate at McDonalds. Not because my family were waging a war against globalisation and fast food. Quite the opposite, in fact.
We didn’t eat there because there wasn’t one anywhere in my country. And when the first McDonalds opened in Moscow, we took the trip to stand in a queue for two hours to be among the first to sample the mysterious delights of a hamburger and a Coke.
In Russia, so much has changed in a generation. And yet so many other things stay the same. We’ve kept our love of bureaucracy, we still take long train rides to cross the country, and the winters remain simultaneously brutal and beautiful.
And our reluctance to talk about the difficult things happening in our lives continues.
Which is why so many women go through life bearing the scars of childhood secrets.
This year, I commissioned some research carried out by Duke University to collate the first ever set of data showing the prevalence of childhood sexual abuse among women who are now receiving treatment for intravenous drug abuse, many of whom are HIV-positive.
We found that one in five women who abuse drugs were themselves sexually abused as a child.
I’ll be honest; I was shocked when I heard that.
Even though I grew up in Russia, and have worked with NGOs in Russia for many years, I hadn’t realised that the prevalence of sexual violence and the links with drug abuse were so high. It’s twice as high as among countries in the EU.
And, of course, it has a huge impact. The spread of HIV is increasing in Russia at a time that it’s stabilising or even decreasing in many other countries. It’s being spread mostly by sharing needles and other risky behaviours associated with substance abuse, which means that we must tackle drug abuse if we’re going to see any impact on HIV prevalence.
For ten years, we at Tearfund have been working with local faith-based organisations and especially Protestant churches to help them deliver much-needed services to people caught up in drug addiction.
And this research, which tells us that almost 40% of women using drugs are HIV positive and 38% have clinical depression, shows that it’s not enough just to have pockets of good practice scattered around the country.
I often find that women are very motivated to get off drugs, yet they often fail due to underlying issues caused by sexual abuse. Unless this trauma is recognised and addressed, our research tells us that the drug rehabilitation will be harder.
But it won’t be recognised if professionals don’t know how to help. And the scarcity of therapeutic services means there’s no-one for women to approach for support.
Our research found that another thing about Russia that has stayed the same is that women have strong friendships with each other. So, many women who have experienced sexual violence will tell their friends but not seek any professional help.
And that means that women and girls continue to live in a world where everyone knows that sexual violence happens, because they all know someone who has experienced it. But they also come to accept that it’s just something we have to live with, and that there isn’t a way to work through the effects of their abuse and find a way to move on. It becomes a guilty secret, which is only shared among close friends and is never brought into the light.
So, Russia continues to live with a sad acceptance that this is just part of life, and a distinctively high proportion of women go on to abuse drugs and contract HIV.
This World AIDS Day, surely it’s time to take note of the vicious cycle of stigma, fear and secrecy and for all the relevant services in Russia – whether at the local or regional level, provided by the Government or voluntary, secular or faith-based organisations – to work together to make sure that the millions of women living out the hidden story of sexual violence and substance abuse behind their closed doors are instead able to get help, rebuild their lives and build a future for Russia that is better than the past.