Piecing together a future living with HIV/AIDS, Em Ran.
"Now, you look at me, I am young and beautiful, " said Em Ran. "It
would be easy to spread the virus to others if I hid the truth and worked as a beer
girl or a karaoke girl."
"Men always love srei sa-ath [beautiful women], but they risk getting the HIV
virus if they don't know [the woman has the disease]."
It hasn't always been easy for Ran to discuss her HIV positive status so matter-of-factly.
When she first found out her husband had passed on the virus in 1997, she sold her
house and land, going on a spending spree that she hoped would give her a few happy
memories before her health began to deteriorate. But the good times didn't last and
she tried to commit suicide on several occasions.
A chance meeting with a mobile HIV/AIDS education unit from World Vision made her
realize that, with the right medical care, there was a future for her and her seven-year-old
daughter, who was also HIV positive.
So last year, the 28-year-old co-founded a new NGO named the Women of Positive Hope
Organization (WPHO). The aim was to improve the quality of life for women and children
living with HIV/AIDS by giving them the opportunity to earn an income sewing handicrafts.
But more than this, the organization encourages women to speak out about their HIV
positive status, in order to educate the community and hopefully breakdown discrimination.
The WPHO headquarters and workshop is an average-looking house located along a sewage
canal near Stung Meanchey bridge several kilometers southwest of Phnom Penh. It may
not be a scenic position, but the rent is cheap and the house provides a chance for
HIV positive women to start over with support from those in similar circumstances.
Like Ran, the other 27 women who live and work at the center were housewives who
contracted HIV from their husband. Some of the women are now widows, while others,
like WPHO president and co-founder Siv Cheng, have re-married with HIV positive men.
While the HIV infection rate dropped to 2 percent last year, Cambodia still has the
region's highest levels of new HIV/AIDS cases. In recent years, campaigns targeting
sex workers and other high-risk groups have started to show results, but there has
been a shift in transmission patterns towards married women like Ran and Cheng.
27 other HIV-positive housewives sew handicrafts and battle discrimination.
By identifying themselves as HIV positive, they hope to play a small part in reducing
the AIDS epidemic in Cambodia.
"When we speak out, the other people will know who we are, but if we do not
speak out then it's impossible for others to know," said Cheng, 27.
Following her husband's death in 2000, she found out that she had HIV.
Her family considered her as "a useless person", Cheng said, and did not
let her cook or do the housework that she had previously helped with. They began
distancing themselves from her, until finally Cheng left to seek a new life.
"Even if we have HIV/AIDS, we can still survive the same as others if we have
our own business, take a proper treatment and food, and there is happiness in our
life," said Chang, sitting in the WPHO workshop.
Social support and the chance to earn money is vital to maximizing the quality of
life for these HIV positive women. WPHO currently has seven sewing machines and facilities
for making silk bags and woven mats.
The combined income of the WPHO craft team is between $200 and $300 per month and
the money is shared amongst those who do the work, with 10 percent going to the upkeep
of the office.
The organization receives additional funds from the BBC World Trust Service and International
The HIV positive women have had considerable success, selling their mostly natural
fiber goods through Khmer Soben House in Phnom Penh.
"We make silk bags and mats depending on the order from our clients," said
Cheng, adding that WPHO has sold about 600 bags in the last six months at a cost
of around $4.50 each.
She said that bringing in an independent income is vital to their push for equality
in the community.
"We have to struggle to live in the society the same as other people, even if
we have had HIV/AIDS, we are still human beings."