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Irina Kutsenko: I was a deputy who closed the sites of OST and LGBT organizations

Irina Kutsenko, a deputy of the Odessa City Council dealing with social issues in the city, received an international award #InYourPower. She became the first and so far the only government official nominated by civil society.

In an exclusive interview, she shared her story: about why she stayed on the sidelines for a long time and closed the OST sites and LGBT organizations; how she came to understand the importance of supporting the city’s HIV/TB program and the work of harm reduction programs, why it significantly helps to improve the health of citizens; about the experience of cooperation with non-governmental organizations, about building a dialogue with medical and security agencies; about conversations on inconvenient topics with deputies, as well as how to prioritize these issues on the municipal agenda and launch an information campaign that the city media will talk about.

So, now Irina Kutsenko is an active defender of community rights at the level of city authorities, a person with tremendous energy and extraordinary willpower. She continues to initiate changes in the city in relation to the most vulnerable groups of the population. She does everything to bring medical and social services in Odessa closer to the most advanced global approaches to harm reduction and combating HIV/TB . But it was not always like that.

“I was the deputy who closed the site of substitution therapy in my district, I collected signatures from people against gay culture and its spread in our city, that is, I was a deputy who conducted completely different activities,” says Irina. But after completing the course of the International Harm Reduction Academy, she began to actively dig into the problem: “I started reading in the Internet, listening to interviews of people, listening to life stories, and I understood that I was wrong!”.

Having changed her personal understanding of the problem and the ways to solve it, Irina gradually begins to cooperate with public organizations to make Odessa a safer city and people more socially protected.

“When representatives of a public organization came to me with a harm reduction project in the city, I already understood what they were talking about. At that moment, I realized that the NGO today knows more than any of the officials. At first I was just listening,” the deputy recalls.

The first task of Irina Kutsenko and members of the public was to find a common language, when everyone is doing their own thing. “We needed everyone – doctors, authorities, and public organizations – to unite into one common work,” she recalls. “Before, everyone was separate.”

The main step towards changing the situation in the city was the fact that disparate society representatives began to communicate. The dialogues took place with the participation of deputies, in the mayor’s office, with the necessary arguments and eloquent statistics, which were often hidden or uninformative for the authorities. As a result of this work, the mayor of the city supported the initiative, and today in Odessa steps are purposefully implemented within the framework of the already signed Paris Declaration. Odessa is also the first city in Ukraine to take on commitments under the Zero TB Cities initiative and is systematically moving towards overcoming the tuberculosis and HIV epidemics. In 2 years, this results from joint efforts and a radical increase in the effectiveness of tuberculosis treatment through the provision of treatment “at primary care” – from 52% to 71%.

However, as the mayor of Odessa Gennady Trukhanov said, it was not easy for the city itself. The deputies debated heatedly during two sessions. The city authorities, in addition to local everyday problems, also need to tackle global challenges, in particular – to help medical workers in the fight against epidemics. After all, everyone is interested in this. “Mayors are assessed by the state of the city: roads, roofs, warmth, comfortable public space. This is all true. And we can achieve cleanliness in the cities, but with the spread of all dangerous infections in the world, God forbid, the time may come when there will be no one to walk along these roads,” the Odessa mayor emphasized.

Also, within the framework of the program, outpatient treatment of tuberculosis was introduced instead of in-patient model, and medical practitioners began to actively test visitors for HIV at polyclinics, educational institutions, and purchased a large number of tests. Thus, the city was able to increase the HIV detection rate and provided an opportunity to make treatment available for people.

“Of course, there are still many problems, but, step by step, we are changing the situation in the city,” says Irina Kutsenko. “We understand that the projects are coming to an end, but those declarative things that were signed by the mayor, and we, as deputies, will have to implement both in this convocation and in the next one, because this is a matter of the life of our citizens”.

Interview timecode:

00:01 – a short content of the interview, consisting of vivid statements of the charismatic deputy

00:58 – how it all began

02:13 – dialogue with the people who need help

04:05 – meeting of the fraction:

“Well, guys, I’m going to tell you something completely different now … We must legalize sex work and open substitution therapy sites. They thought I was crazy. “

05:23 – dialogue with public organizations, the mayor and the Paris Declaration: Odessa approach

08:45 – HIV and TB, stigma and treatment initiation under a motivation program for health workers

11:28 – projects “go away”, but the issue of people’s lives remains on the agenda

11:45 – harm reduction services in municipal pharmacies in Odessa

12:40 – how the city HIV / TB program was developed for 65 million hryvnia

15:02 – life hacks and shame: how NGOs helped convince MPs to support the city’s HIV/TB programs

17:15 – “It’s all right with the Duke “: mural, media resonance and HIV testing

18:56 – creation of the second center of integrated social services for harm reduction in Ukraine (the first is in Sumy)

19:17 – new format of cooperation with law enforcement agencies

19:43 – “we are on the sidelines until they explain to us”

22:45 – “speak a simple language”

23:00 – how to calculate the budget of the city program