Shrinking Civil Society Space Hinders NGO Activities in EECA

The results of the assessment proved to be the basis for rewarding discussions during AFEW Regional autumn school in Almaty, Kazakhstan last year where the first findings were presented

Author: Aïcha Chaghouani, The Netherlands

Different trends of more restrictive legislation hinder the development of a healthy, independent and diverse civil society in Eastern Europe and Central Asia (EECA). Shrinking civil society space in the EECA countries is making the work of many non-governmental organisations more difficult.

NGOs play a crucial role in the development of effective HIV/AIDS responses. Non-governmental organisations meaningfully involve community key population groups for a better understanding of their needs. The experts are saying that the limited space that NGOs are allowed to maneuver in, is threatening the effectiveness of national and regional policies to contain and stop the growth of the HIV epidemic in the region.

AFEW’s assessment of the situation

Many NGOs in the EECA region, especially those working with key populations and in the field of harm reduction, are currently facing significant challenges. International donors are withdrawing from the region while most local governments are unwilling and/or failing to take over. The withdrawal of funds together with the shrinking civil society space are threatening the investments made and progresses achieved in the last decades in the field of HIV/AIDS.

AFEW International’s experts Janine Wildschut and Magdalena Dabkowska conducted a mixed-methods research to explore the process of shrinking civil society space in the EECA countries, how this affects NGOs and how they are coping with it. With this research, AFEW has gained more insights and learned how NGOs are currently dealing with those challenges. The research is part of AFEW’s regional approach within Bridging the Gaps: health and rights of key populations project.

Coping strategies and regional exchange

The ultimate aim of the research was to assess the coping strategies in a context of shrinking space of civil society in EECA.

“I believe that these coping strategies are vital in the current circumstances and demonstrate the big resilience of the communities and NGOs working with key populations,” says AFEW’s director of programmes Janine Wildschut.

The research was conducted in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Poland, Tajikistan, Russia and Uzbekistan.  This mixed-method research consisted of a general primary assessment of the whole region, semi-structured interviews with NGOs and donors, and a survey.

AFEW’s experts believe that by mapping different strategies AFEW is able to facilitate a regional exchange of success and failure stories in which NGOs can learn from each other’s experiences. The identification of different strategies helps organizations to develop more comprehensive coping mechanisms in the current contexts.

“We hope to raise more awareness with donors about the situation of NGOs in the shrinking space of civil society, and will offer coping tools to NGOs,” says Janine Wildschut.

Fight, hide or unite

The outcomes of the research identified three main resilience strategies NGOs adopted in order to overcome the challenges. They are: fight – opposing the authorities, hide – opposing, allying or neutral but out of sight and silent, and unite – allying with the authorities. All interviewed NGOs had different reasons to choose one of these three paths.

AFEW International’s experts Janine Wildschut and Magdalena Dabkowska conducted a mixed-methods research to explore the process of shrinking civil society space in the EECA countries, how this affects NGOs and how they are coping with it

“We want to be more diplomatic. If you are being too much of an activist, you can also just break your organization,” an NGO employee from Tajikistan said.

For some organizations, it was possible to create alliances with the local or national authorities and still continue their work while for others, creating these alliances meant stopping or changing part of their core activities.

“We believe that it is actually ethically wrong to be in alliance with this government. We also do not try to be invisible for them. We do not do anything illegal so we do not hide anything,” a Russian NGO employee said. “There is no law we are violating so there is nothing to hide. If they want to change or stop us we just go to court. We have a lot of strategic activities including cases against the government.”

Further discussion 

Which out of ‘fight, hide or unite’ positions is the most suitable for an NGO, depends on the characteristics of the organization, the context it is operating in and the beliefs of its employees.

“The different paths identified by the assessment could serve as a fruitful basis for further discussion and to build strategic plans on how to deal in such situations. AFEW can facilitate a valuable exchange of best-practices between NGOs. Besides, the discussion can serve as a way to grow awareness and understanding about why a certain NGO takes a specific position, which can prevent undesired conflicts between civil society organisations themselves,” says Janine Wildschut from AFEW International.

The results of the assessment proved to be the basis for rewarding discussions during AFEW Regional autumn school in Almaty, Kazakhstan last year where the first findings were presented. In spring of 2018, the official report will be published and will be available online.

Bridging the Gaps Returned the Faith

Tahmina’s story is one of the positive stories of women in Tajikistan, who, due to the social and legal support of the project Bridging the Gaps: Health and Rights for Key Populations 2.0, again received hope and planned positive changes in their lives.

Family issues pushed to drugs

“When I studied in the 4th grade, my parents already had five children. This is the usual situation in Tajik families in the rural areas. Due to the frequent childbirth and burdensome care for five young children at the same time, my mother often fell ill. I had to drop out of school and take care of everything by myself,” Tahmina is saying.

Tahmina was taking care of all the things in the house, raised her brothers and sisters, helped them with school. Because of the health problems, her mother was constantly in hospitals. Her father spent days at work and came home late at night.

In one of such evenings, when the father was late at work and the mother was in the hospital, Tahmina’s uncle – her father’s brother – visited their house. Asking little Tahmina to come out of the house with him, the uncle raped her. Some time later, the neighbour found unconscious Tahmina and brought her to the hospital. Long investigations started, her mother and father were almost having nervous break-downs because the relatives of the girl started to hate her and blamed her for everything.

“Policemen always came to our house and asked me strange questions. I remember that when I came to the courtroom and saw my uncle there, I just fainted,” Tahmina is saying. “My uncle eventually was sent to prison and I became the cast-away for many of the relatives from my father’s side. Trying to save me from them, my parents sent me to the relatives from my mother’s side. I was always traveling to Dushanbe or to the other cities of the country.”

The girl started to meet different people, became friends with other girls in Qurghonteppa. During one of the meetings, the girls offered Tahmina to smoke cigarettes and then marihuana. They introduced Tahmina to Azam (the name is changed) who turned to be the big drug-dealer in Qurghonteppa.

“During a year and a half, he was keeping me locked in one of his apartments. Sometimes late at night, he would take me to the restaurants,” the woman recalls. “Taking all of this into consideration, he was still sending money to my parents. He taught me how to use drugs. This is how I became addicted to heroin. After some time, Azam’s interest to me faded away and I found myself on the street. Because at that moment my life totally depended on heroin, I started to steal and do sex work so that I could get a doze. As a result, I went to prison.”

The key visit to AFEW-Tajikistan

In 2013, Tahmina went to prison because of the theft. Being imprisoned for a quarter of her term, she got free because of the amnesty. When she went back home, the woman again faced the threats from her father’s relatives side. She had to leave her home and started to live on the streets again. After many unpleasant adventures, Tahmina met people who use drugs whom she knew before, and she started to use again.

Once, Tahmina met Bahriddin whom she knew before. He was also using drugs, but, to Tahmina’s surprise, he changed, and was looking good and happy. It turned out that Bahriddin started to work in the public organisation AFEW-Tajikistan as a peer consultant. He told Tahmina about how he succeeded to change, and he also mentioned the help and services that his organisation is providing. Tahmina got interested in that and decided to visit the drop-in center for the drug users and see everything by herself.

When she just came to AFEW-Tajikistan’s drop-in center, Tahmina was surprised that even though she had a dirty dress and flip-flops were barely covering her bloody feet, she was greeted very warmly. She was offered some tea and the workers talked with her about her health.

“I was very skinny and dirty, and I could not remember the last time I took shower or bath,” Tahmina is remembering that day now.

The social workers helped Tahmina with taking care of herself. They also helped her to come back to her parents’ house, arranged the documents for her and sent her to the doctors so that she could be checked and her health could be improved.

To see the sun again

Since summer 2017, Tahmina comes to the drop-in center very regularly. She is also taking part in self-help groups of people who use drugs. She learned the basics of her personal hygiene, HIV prevention and sexually transmitted infections (STI.) She got to know how to cope with the drug use and the possibilities to live sober. During one of the meetings, Tahmina got to know about opioid-substitution treatment (OST.) The friendly and warm atmosphere, respect and the possibility to get methadone for free inspired Tahmina to change her life.

Since August of the same year, Tahmina started to take part in OST programme that is located in the drug center where she would never go by herself. Nowadays, Tahmina is taking methadone and continues to take part in self-help groups. She found many friends who understand her and are ready to support her.

“With the support of AFEW-Tajikistan, during half of the year, I changed for better. I believed the peer consultants and social workers and started to help my mother, and I have not done so since I left home. AFEW helped me to gain the trust in myself again. My eyes are shining like it was before, I again see the sun and I want to live!” Tahmina is finishing her story with the smile on her face.

Only in 2017, 688 female drug users and vulnerable women in the Republic of Tajikistan were provided with the prevention and social services within the project Bridging the Gaps: Health and Rights for Key Populations 2.0 that is financed by the Ministry of the Foreign Affairs of the Netherlands.

The First AFEW Regional Autumn School Was Conducted in Kazakhstan

Author: Marina Maximova, Kazakhstan

Representatives of 10 countries took part in the first regional autumn school organized by AFEW, which was held from 30 October to 5 November in the Oy-Karagay gorge, not far from Almaty, Kazakhstan. The school was conducted with the support of the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

High mountains, hot sun, picturesque autumn landscapes, atmosphere of the national yurt instead of the traditional training hall – combined with the team spirit and expectations of positive changes – contributed to the creative atmosphere of the event. The school participants included representatives of the AFEW network from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, the Netherlands, Tajikistan, Ukraine, sub-grantees of the project ‘Bridging the Gaps: Health and Rights for Key Populations,’ and partner organizations. Such allies and friends are the biggest guarantee of success.

Learning to bridge the gaps

“The autumn school helps to find the answers to a range of questions and get acquainted with the new innovative practices in working with key populations,” says Dilshod Pulatov, Project Manager, ‘Bridging the Gaps’ programme, AFEW-Tajikistan.

He presented the results of the social study to assess the level of labour migration among people who use drugs. It was conducted for 18 months in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. The study, which covered 600 respondents, demonstrated regional trends and showed interesting results. The main of them is that the labour migrants who use drugs do not know where they can get help and who can offer such help. In both countries, the respondents pointed out that as labour migrants they experienced problems with access to health and social services.

The results of this research study will help AFEW to scale up the access of drug users to quality HIV prevention, treatment, care, and support services and find new partners. Partnerships were created right at the discussion platform. This study proved to be interesting not only to the participants, but also to the guests invited to take part in the autumn school, including representatives of the Project HOPE in Kazakhstan.

Platform for discussion and activism

Today, ‘Bridging the Gaps’ programme is implemented by the organizations from four countries of the region. The autumn school became a platform to discuss strategies, barriers, innovations, and opportunities for cooperation.

“In our country, the biggest gap is an access of underage people who use drugs (PUD) to services. Many services are offered to adult PUD, in particular with support of the international donors. It allows them getting qualified help. At the same time, people often forget that the first experience of drug use happens under the age of 18,” tells Anastasia Shebardina, Project Manager, AFEW-Ukraine.

The project made an important contribution for radically changing the situation: it opened the only rehab centre for drug dependent adolescents in Chernivtsi and supported four civil society organizations.

In each country, there are success stories, which became possible thanks to the project implementation. So far, these are just tiny steps forward in the big scope of the existing problems. Every such step became possible thanks to project staff and activists working hard for a long time, but such victories, even if they are small, enhance personal motivation of people and allow them to set bigger goals.

“One of our achievements is developing the standards of services for PUD serving sentences in the Georgian prisons. We educate prison staff and have drafted a special training module for this purpose. In some organizations, support groups for PUD are already functioning. Rehab centre Help has opened its doors to clients. Now 12 people can stay there and get qualified help. We plan to cover all correctional facilities in the country with our activities,” shares his plans Vazha Kasrelishvili, Project Coordinator of the NGO Tanadgoma.

From knowledge sharing to new rehabilitation models

Sharing knowledge and best practices is one of the goals of the autumn school. Together, it is easier to elaborate strategies and innovative approaches, considering that the tendencies in development of the situation in the region are similar. Today, the search to fund vital projects also requires joint efforts, taking into account the reduction of the funding received from the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria and other donors in the region. So far, national governments are not ready to take over this financial burden in full scope. Despite their broad fundraising efforts, civil society organizations do not have enough grant funds aimed at scaling up access to services for key populations.

“With the support of the Ministry of Health of the Kyrgyz Republic, within our project we developed two clinical guidelines: on managing pregnancy, delivery and postnatal period of female PUD and on mental health and behaviour disorders in children and adolescents caused by the use of new psychoactive substances. We were able to open a social office for women with HIV, which offers counselling of psychologists and peer consultants. In the country, there are two rehab centres for women with HIV and drug dependence, which cooperate with friendly clinics,” tells Natalya Shumskaya, the head of the AIDS Foundation East-West in the Kyrgyz Republic.

Today, there is a need to use new, more effective rehabilitation models. This idea has been supported by all participants of the autumn school. Such models should be aimed at developing inner strength – empowerment – of each of the members of key populations.

“Maybe now it is time to change and expand our understanding of the rehabilitation concept. It is not only detox and psychology. There should be equal opportunities, in particular based on harm reduction, to accept yourself,” points out Anna Sarang, President of Andrey Rylkov Foundation, Russia.

Preparations to AIDS 2018

Participants of the autumn school also discussed preparations to the 22nd International AIDS Conference (AIDS 2018) in Amsterdam, the Netherlands – the main event of the next year for activists of the AIDS organizations. All countries of the Eastern Europe and Central Asia are already actively preparing for the conference. How can decision makers be involved into this crucial event? What channels are most effective in communicating information about the conference? How to make this event significant? Every day, participants of the autumn school discussed these and other questions. Besides, they learned how to write abstracts for the conference and choose catchy titles for them.

It is very important that the participants developed some new ideas, concepts and thoughts, because starting from 1 December 2017 registration for AIDS 2018 will be open. It will be a new and diverse platform for discussions making decisions significant for all countries and communities.

AFEW Tajikistan’s Offers the Range of Unique Services

Success with harm reduction has recently been achieved in Tajikistan. HIV epidemic amongst injecting drug users also seems to stabilize and even decline. Unfortunately, HIV is still increasing as now it also enters wider community around people who use drugs (PUD) and other key populations. Sexual transmission of HIV is rising, and women is the most vulnerable group in this new wave of HIV infections. Besides, in Tajikistan there are other health related issues with tuberculosis, hepatitis and sexual and reproductive health. These are the observations of AFEW International’s director of the programs Janine Wildschut who visited Tajikistan last week to monitor the work of ‘Bridging the Gaps: health and rights for key popualtions’ programme.

Empowering women is the aim

Within ‘Bridging the Gaps’ programme, AFEW Tajikistan with its partners are focusing on service delivery mainly for female drug users, female prisoners, wives and spouses of PUD. Through the Comprehensive Service Delivery Centre in Qurghonteppa, AFEW Tajikistan is delivering a broad range of services for vulnerable groups, where all groups are welcome.

“We face the issues with health and with the rights of individuals. We want to empower women to take care about themselves, and it is very important to support them in speaking out for their interest and needs,” Janine is saying. “AFEW Tajikistan offers the unique opportunity to have HIV test on the base of the NGO. They also offer wider psycho social support and client management for women based on their needs.”

In Tajikistan Janine also conducted assessment amongst PUD that have labor migration experience. With the support of Open Society Institute Tajikistan, AFEW Tajikistan is supporting labour migrating women returnees with client management. During the focus groups, different women were asked about their needs, quality of services they received, ideas for further improvements and their lives.

Starting vocational training

Janine Wildschut also conducted interviews with NGO partners about the situation for civil society in Tajikistan, spoke with governmental partners within the health department and penitentiary system and worked with AFEW Tajikistan staff on the development and strategies within the next years of the ‘Bridging the Gaps’ programme.

“During the focus group, opioid substitution therapy (OST) clients expressed the uniqueness of the service centre in Qurghonteppa. The biggest challenge for people is to travel every day to the OST point to pick up their methadone, since some of them live quite far and have little resources to spend on transportation,” Janine noticed. “Located nearby, AFEW branch is of big help since they can, after picking up OST, go for health checkup, self-support group or use some other support. Nowadays they are experiencing less discrimination and not such bad treatment of public health facilities because with the AFEW partner network and the AFEW referral vouchers, the attitude and climate in the health facilities in Khatlon region improved a lot. Besides, the support of social workers decreased the level of self-stigma which makes people less fearful to visit  public health services.”

The biggest challenge people still face is the lack of work and education. For that reason, AFEW Tajikistan is considering the option of starting vocational training and enterprise. These plans will be developed in collaboration with experts and micro credit organizations that are part of the partner network.

Bridging the Gaps in Women’s Hostel in Kyrgyzstan


Leila and Sofia live in women hostel in Bishkek

Five-year-old Sofia is playing with her mother’s telephone. The girl is sitting on the floor and is listening to the music. She is switching between the songs, watching videos, and trying to find her favourite track. There are four beds in a small room. At some moment, the girl puts the phone away and asks: “Mom, what will Santa bring me?”

“What would you like, dear?” she hears from her mother, and the broad smile appears on her face. “I would like him to bring me a kitten. I will feed it with milk.”

When the girl is smiling, she has cute dimples on her cheeks. She brings a toy – plastic alphabet with the buttons. She presses the letters and repeats them. Sometimes she gets the letters wrong, and then the mother asks her to do it again.


Sofia and her forty-year-old mother Leila live in the hostel that operates in the centre of adaptation and socialization of women – injecting drug users in the public fund Asteria in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. Leila was recently released from prison.


Leila is teaching Sofia an alphabet

“I do not have any relatives; I was raised in the orphanage. I got to prison when I was pregnant, and my daughter was born there,” Leila tells. “Now I work in the kitchen or wash the floors. Recently I went to Turkey, and wanted to find a job there, but I do not know Turkish language, and that is why it did not happen. By education, I am a seamstress and a pastry chef, but it is hard to find a job because I am HIV-positive. I am being asked about my diagnosis all the time, and I always have to go through medical examinations. Now I have found a job as a nursemaid, but I do not have anyone to leave my daughter with. She has to go to kindergarten, but all of them here are not free of charge. I will have to spend almost whole salary to cover the pay for kindergarten… I am currently waiting for the cash advance to pay.”

Leila says that she tells her new friends about her diagnosis, even though she does not always want to do it.

“I think, people with my disease should talk about it, and warn others as well. Now I also bring other people to get tested. I am telling them they have to do it, and that it is free of charge,” Leila says. “Of course, people treat me different when I tell them about my diagnosis. Yes, it is unpleasant, but I am happy that in this way I do something nice to others. Everybody should know such things.”


Leila is worried that the hostel in Asteria can be closed. In that case, the woman can end up on the street. She does not have anywhere to go to.

“I should not be complaining; we have everything here. The main thing is the roof over your head,” the woman smiles and hugs her daughter. “I am very comfortable here. We receive medical treatment, there is a place to sleep, to do laundry. Every Sunday we go to church. In the church I always pray for this house, for people who help us here, and ask God that the organization has donors.”


The head of Asteria Iren Ermolaeva shows the rules of the hostel

Leila says that she would like to move from the hostel in the future, but she does not have such possibility yet. She dreams of her own home, family, and work. She also wishes that the hostel will never close. People who work in Asteria have the same desire.

“We indeed often have problems with financing. Every year we do not know what to expect in the next one,” the head of the public fund Asteria Iren Ermolaeva says. “Our public fund is working since 2007, and the hostel – since 2009. We would like to have the whole range of services, but there is not enough financing these days. We know how to find the approach to women, we know how to create friendly atmosphere so that a woman would want to change her life for better herself, and we would like to use this knowledge. We feel sorry for our clients, and we would like to help them more.”


Workers of Asteria also dream about purchasing the house where they will place the centre of adaptation and socialization of women – injecting drug users and the hostel. They have already found funds for the future house renovation, but cannot find money for its purchase.

“Then we would be able to have social entrepreneurship, maybe some little farm. In that way, we could at least not depend on donors in food,” the coordinator of the social services of the fund Tatiana Musagalieva is saying. “Until now, we rented all three houses for our centre.”


Asteria workers Iren Ermolaeva (on the right) and Tatiana Musagalieva say that their organisation often has problems with financing

Thanks to “Bridging the Gaps: Health and Rights for Key Populations” project from Public Foundation “AIDS Foundation East-West in the Kyrgyz Republic”, in 2016 Asteria could support four beds in the hostel. The project also helped with medicine and warm food.

“People often come to us to eat, to do laundry,” Iren Ermolaeva says. “Around 300 women come through our centre during one year. Leila, for instance, came here after she was released from prison. She has got all the necessary services, clothes, shoes, and got medical examinations. Leila was imprisoned for five years, and, now, due to the conditions that we have, she adapts and integrates into society. In this way, she becomes more confident in herself, can find a job and build her future.”

Starting Methadone after 18 Years of Using Drugs   

IMG_269244 years old Makhmad asked for support of the social workers of “Bridging the Gaps” program implemented in Qurghoonteppa city in Tajikistan after he experienced 18 years of injecting drugs and had several ineffective attempts of stopping using them. He was seeking for some assistance in his drugs dependence treatment.

“I have heard about methadone many times, but did not believe that it can help me, even though many of my “colleagues” in the streets were telling about its positive effects. During my communication with social workers of AFEW-Tajikistan, I received all the answers to my questions. They told me everything about opioid substitution therapy (OST) and all aspects of using of methadone. I decided to try this treatment myself,”– Makhmad says.

Before entering OST program, Makhmad faced many problems in his everyday life and with his family. “Frankly, I never thought about my family and my kids. All my thoughts were about how to find drugs”, – he says. Thanks to “Bridging the Gaps” program support, Makhmad passed medical observations, got needed tests and afterwards was included in OST program that was implemented by state detox center of Qurghoonteppa.

“After some time of participation in OST program I felt positive changes. First of all, I stopped to think about how and where to find my dose of heroin. Besides, my relations with family members improved. I have also found the job. I feel myself healthy and I can say it with a confidence that everything is good in my life. When I now see people I know who are still using drugs, I explain them that methadone is something that can really help us”, – Makhmad tells.

Social workers of AFEW-Tajikistan are continuing to provide assistance to Makhmad. In return, he does some volunteering work for AFEW, and together with the social workers Makhmad is informing people who use drugs about available services within “Bridging the Gaps” program in Qurghoonteppa.

“Bridging the Gaps: Health and Rights of key populations” project is funded by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Netherlands is implementing in Qurghoonteppa by AFEW-Tajikistan Branch in Khatlon region. People who use drugs or are affected by HIV epidemic can receive client management and HIV prevention services including assistance in initiation and adherence to treatment. Only in the first half of 2016, 84 PUDs were provided by AFEW-Tajikistan’s assistance to pass needed medical observations on free of charge base and 16 of them finally were included in OST program.