On 8.10.2015, in the conference hall of the Municipality of Ohrid, the civil society organization Option from Ohrid held a meeting with the local decision-makers, a meeting also attended by almost all invited state partner institutions and civil society organizations. It should be noted that on this same day Option celebrated its 10th year anniversary doing active work and implementation of the project “Sustaining low HIV Prevalence in Macedonia” on the territory of Ohrid and Struga, celebrated with a small cocktail party and broadcasted by the media. On this day we decided to reflect on our achievements and we were truly proud.
However, the begging was difficult. In 2003, when Option was registered in the Central Register of Macedonia and my colleagues opened the way for harm reduction programs, it shocked many representatives of the local state institutions expected to support the programs. Founding an organization to support and service “junkies” in Ohrid was out of the question. The prevailing attitude was along the lines “they should all be arrested and imprisoned”, including those working towards enhancing their social and health state. Despite the numerous obstructions from all sides, pressures, revolt, lobbying with the mayor, in 2005 implementation of the activities officially began.
Modestly, with an outreach team and a small, but sufficient needle exchange center, i.e. offering the so-called low-threshold treatment and several other services under the same roof. We offer a type of secondary prevention and strive towards enhancing the health and social state of people who use drugs, we started educating users on how to prevent drug overdose and protect themselves from HIV, hepatitis B/C and tuberculosis, how to correctly destroy the used injecting equipment, we motivate and counsel them on initiating substitution treatment available in our country etc. We offer free anonymous and confidential HIV and hepatitis C testing in a positive atmosphere of security in our day center. The number of people who use drugs grew rapidly in Struga, and we responded by expanding our outreach activities and visits to the clients’ homes in this region as well.
In March 2015, we opened another Day Center in Struga for people who use drugs with a completely new team. This provided our clients from Struga and the surrounding areas with easier access to our services, clients who previously had to seek them in our Center in Ohrid.
In December 2010 we initiated support programs for sex workers and their families on the territory of Ohrid and Struga. Once again another shock followed. Considering that sex work in Macedonia is not regulated by law, there was the question of how we were going to function and help sex workers, how we were going to be accepted etc.
Our organization faced prejudices once again. Successfully and with great enthusiasm, the team took on the new challenge to support sex workers and their families. In December 2013, at our request we were joined by a USA Peace Corps volunteer whose previous vast experience was a welcoming addition to our daily activities. Option’s clients were particularly appreciative of the requalification training and the newly acquired certificates. We introduced free gynecological examinations with the help of H.E.R.A. from Skopje. We remain to be persistent and professional in speaking up for the problems sex workers face, working on promotion of their rights as well as those of their families, and improving their economic, social and health status. Today, we believe we have managed to change the image local population has of sex workers.
Throughout the years we learned from the best. Our colleagues from HOPS Skopje launched these programs in 1996, and they taught us in the true meaning of the word. Trainings and seminars followed, we met new colleagues, we acquired new contacts, we were included in broad network of cooperation, we acquired new experiences on field work with marginalized communities, we broadened our views during visits to Trieste, Venice, Ljubljana, Pristina, Amsterdam, we had the opportunity to see in practice how professional teams function and we relayed that experience in our country. All these activities helped us enhance ourselves as professionals but also as individuals. Throughout the years the team changed: some left, new arrived, some found their true calling with us, some, unfortunately, passed away. However, every member in their own specific way, successful or less successful, professional or non-professional will remain engraved in the organization’s history.
In the past few years, Option developed into a serious and renowned organization. We are members of the Citizens’ Advisory Group within the Ohrid Prevention Sector and of the Local Youth Council within the municipality of Ohrid. We collaborate with the Sector of Interior Affairs in Ohrid and have had lectures in several departments of the local police. We also cooperate with the Center for Prevention and Treatment of Drug Addiction, PHI General Hospital Ohrid, including contacting and coordination of all activities related to our clients. In the PI Juvenile Prison Ohrid and the PI “Teferig” Prison Struga we provide frequent HIV and Hepatitis C testing and lectures for the prisoners, we have lectures for employees of the Fire Brigade Department in Ohrid and Struga, we trained 90 Army members in Ohrid to recognize and prevent sexually transmitted and blood-borne infections, we collaborate with the Social Work Center and the Public Health Center in Ohrid, ROCHE – Skopje, the Red Cross Ohrid, the Youth Council Ohrid and LAR Struga. These are only some of the institutions we were successful to establish a great cooperation with. International dates are regularly celebrated: the International Sex Worker Day – 2nd June, World Tuberculosis Day 24th March, World Hepatitis Day – 28th July, World AIDS Day – 1st December, International Day to End Violence against Sex Workers – 17th December, whereupon all activities are presented to the media since we feel it is important to reach to the local community with our preventive programs. Very often we are invited to shows on local TV stations and web portals where we open discussions on people who use drugs and sex work, and where we are always presented as a positive example for protection of the public health. Both Option centers are visited by students and organizations interested in supporting people who use drugs and sex workers and this type of preventive programs in general.
Despite the fact that Option’s funding, a donation from the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, is being terminated in December 2016, we believe our team will persist and carry on with our mission to introduce humane drug and sex work policies. During our last meeting with the decision-makers we received genuinely positive comments and moral support by the City Council of Ohrid and other representatives of local institutions, which are of great significance to the team and a motivation to continue with the same tempo for the good of our clients and the entire community. The occurring problems that concern these two marginalized groups are not only their problem, rather of the entire community, hence we hope that the state and the local self-government units will not turn a deaf ear to the need of funding these programs.
Finally, let me mention Romania, an example we hope won’t happen with Macedonia. After the Global Fund, as the only donor, terminated funding in Romania, the number of HIV infected people grew to 362 new cases in one year (2011/2012).
I might have omitted something but I believe I will have another opportunity to inform you at our 20th Anniversary.