Activists in Focus: Karen Badalyan of the South Caucus Network on HIV/AIDS

Karen Badalyan is the co-founder of the South Caucasus Network on HIV/AIDS (SCN), an innovative partnership that works to achieve universal access to HIV prevention, treatment, care and support for men who have sex with men and transgender people.

MSMGF: Tell us a little bit about the context you work in.

Karen: The first thing that we have to distinguish when we are talking about my region is that it is underfunded. From the perspective of public health and epidemics professionals, the South Caucasus is not Eastern Europe. Among post-Soviet countries, there are deep cultural and social differences that continue to affect the HIV response.

Post-Soviet countries such as  Ukraine, Moldova and Belarus have specific social systems and attitudes which differ from those of Eastern European . For example, general social attitudes towards homosexuality remain highly unfavorable and homosexuality is still largely pathologized as being a disease. Media coverage and public response to the issues of sexual orientation and gender identity is these countries is extremely negative. The influence of religion and traditions on behavior is very strong. Over the last three years, well established homophobic movements  based in religioun, tradition or even fascism have actively prejudiced public opinion toward men who have sex with men and transgender people in all South Caucasus countires.

Additionally, there are some behavioral differences among MSM such as high levels of injecting drug use (19.9% in Georgia, 12% in Azerbaijan) and high rates of sexual contacts with female partners (41% in Azerbaijan, 66.6% in Georgia) that beg for further analysis in regards to HIV transmission.

Given the specifics of the region, it was vitally important for SCN to agree on a unified platform for planning and implementation of coordinated efforts. This enables us to work towards a better environment for HIV prevention that involves key stakeholders and demonstrates commitment from all members of the community by preparing a basis for national action plans in each country.

MSMGF: Tell us about the general strategy/direction that your network is using in the HIV response within the region you operate in.

Karen: SCN Partnership promotes coordination of programs in the field of HIV prevention among MSM/TG in the South Caucasus region. Our members cooperate by:

  • Providing consultative assistance at all levels of the decision making process, elaboration and improvements of policies addressing socially important diseases;
  • Promoting the capacity building of specialists and leaders of non-commercial organizations working in the field of public health system;
  • Supporting improvements in the legislative and law enforcement practices and in the field of public health and healthcare system;
  • Attracting resources and funds, as well as adapting to the international experience by supporting regional and international cooperation programs

In 2011, we organized the first ever South Caucasus Conference on HIV/AIDS among MSM and Transgender People. This was a great success, since we provided participants with the opportunities to share their experience and best practices in the field of HIV prevention among MSM and TG in the region, to assess problems and existing gaps, and to strengthen partnership with the goal of achieving universal access to HIV prevention, treatment, care and support in the three countries of the South Caucasus. According to the results of the conference participants presented recommendations, identifying priorities in overcoming barriers for effective HIV response among MSM and TG in the countries of the South Caucasus. Also, the first time ever in my region, a special attention was dedicated to the issues such as migration among South Caucasus countries and to the countries of EECA, and significant lack of information about TG.  This conference was a starting point and I will always remember this kick off of our work on “Knowing our epidemic” – considering relatively hidden character of the epidemic, ensuring implementation of the research in order to collect maximum information about MSM/TG groups and elaboration and implementation of programs for MSM and TG;

MSMGF: Tell us a little bit about yourself:

Karen: As one of the founding members and the Executive Director of the South Caucasian Network on HIV/AIDS among MSM and TG, I have developed alliances at the national, regional, and international levels to be able to boost collaboration between NGOs and communities and act on healthcare police changing in the region. I coordinate project portfolio, manage activities, initiative, oversee and develop key deliverables connecting dependencies across strategy, budget and operational plan.

I have attended more than 100 forums, conferences, trainings and workshops in my time at SCN. With 14 years of experience in HIV/AIDS, Human Rights, Public Health and Gender, I used to serve as peer reviewer, expert, trainer and consultant for institutions such amfAR, USAID, UNDP, WHO, USAID, EQUITAS, EATG, GF, MSMGF, and more.

I possess diploma of Doctor of Biology from Armenian National Academy of Sciences. My main topic of studies were immunology, virology, histology and genetic. I am the author of 17 scientific publications, including studies and research and 23 books and IEC.

And YES! I am married… already 9 years we are living happily with our two dogs!

MSMGF: Knowing that you work in a network that is part of a Consortium of other regional and global networks, what does it mean to you to be a member of a global community of activists? How important to you is it to be connected to other activists in different regions with different contexts?

Karen: HIV remains a major public health problem both in the World and in the region South Caucasus too. The current response to HIV among MSM communities and transgender people is largely build in national, regional and global partnership and cooperation. In response to the epidemic, we are largely using polices, guidelines, principles developed by our partners or developed by the participation of our partners, such are “UNAIDS Action Framework: Universal Access for Men who have Sex with Men and Transgender Persons”, the Council of Europe’s “Recommendations of the Committee of Ministers to Member States on measures to combat discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity” and the “Yogyakarta Principles on the Application of International Human Rights Law in relation to Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity”, “Kiev Recommendations on MSM and TG – 2010” have been developed. These recommendations outline the priorities in overcoming barriers to an effective HIV response among MSM and TG in and are developed by the participation of our partners and communities and it is important for us to remain in close partnership with other regional and international organizations so we are able to raise the voice of our communities.

To learn more about Karen and the work of The South Caucus Network on HIV/AIDS, click here.