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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - One way forward: fighting discrimination

One way forward: fighting discrimination

Heng Sokrithy was enjoying success as an architect designing villas, provincial

hospitals and Phnom Penh's les Jardins du Bassac. But only a few years into his

career, he began feeling constantly sick.

His decline in health led him

to get a blood test in 2000. He had always used condoms during sex, but

sometimes they broke. Without being offered pre- or post-test counseling, he was

told he was HIV positive.

"I stopped everything immediately - I lost

hope," he said in a speech given in January in Bangkok. "I had to stop working

because I was seriously ill. There was no one that I could talk to, so I had to

keep my feelings to myself.

"When some of my close friends and colleagues

started to find out about my HIV status they did not support me. They no longer

wanted to be my friend. People started talking about me."

Most of the

time, Sokrithy simply lay in bed waiting for death. But in February 2001 he

heard about a local NGO called Vithey Chivit, staffed by HIV positive people.

With their help, he got medical treatment and regained his

strength.

Sitting in his office, the soft-spoken architect tells of his

new task as coordinator for the People Living with HIV/AIDS Network in Cambodia

(CPN+).

"I started working for CPN+ because Cambodia has the most serious

AIDS epidemic in Asia," he says. "People with HIV and AIDS have many problems.

They face stigma and discrimination."

Assistant coordinator Leap Srey

Luch was infected by her late husband. He died in 1998, her two-year-old

daughter the following year.

"I was very, very angry when I found out,"

she says.

Srey Luch is on her first day back at work after being ill for

two weeks. She lives with her parents but has experienced much

discrimination.

"The community said I was no good, my husband was no good

and my family was no good," says Srey Luch.

Stigma and discrimination

against HIV positive people is common: they are at risk of losing not only their

jobs but also their homes. Discrimination helps the virus to

spread.

While over 90 percent of the population is aware of HIV/AIDS,

misconceptions are widespread particularly in rural areas. People who fear being

ostracized by their community have little incentive to find out if they are

infected or even to get treatment.

"Sometimes uninfected people shake my

hand, but once they find out [I have HIV], they are afraid," says Sokrithy.

Education, he says, removes that discrimination.

Before the NGO was

founded in July 2001 there were several support groups for the estimated 169,000

infected Cambodians. However, they did not act as a group, and had no input into

related policy issues. CPN+ has changed that.

Its support groups give

people confidence to speak publicly about their needs and rights. Infected

Cambodians are more effective at educating others about HIV/AIDS and calling on

the government and international NGOs to help improve the quality of their

lives.

It has 13 member organizations in Phnom Penh, Kampong Cham,

Battambang and Prey Veng provinces, and plans to expand that to eight provinces

by the end of this year.

"Before this network was formed, there was a lot

of discrimination and only a few people disclosed their illness," says Dr Chhim

Sarath, the senior program officer for the Khmer HIV/AIDS NGO Alliance, which

provides financial support for the NGO's activities.

"The community is

starting to support them and they are starting to have a strong voice," says Dr

Sarath.

International NGOs say more help is required.

"There's a

very open environment here to working with [HIV] positive people," says Sara Nam

of UNAIDS. "One of the biggest things we can do is involve [HIV] positive people

in policy decisions."

One initiative is a UN-sponsored program called

GIPA (Greater Involvement of People Living with HIV/AIDS), which will help

infected people overcome social barriers and promote their participation in

activities to combat the disease.

Seija Tyrninoksa, country head of the

International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, says

self-advocacy is "a key principle - it's important for people to stand up for

themselves".

The Federation will place HIV-positive people at the center

of a global campaign to fight discrimination which begins May 8.

"We like

having infected people speak out," said Federation secretary-general, Didier

Cherpitel, during a March 10 visit to Cambodia. "They're the most affected, and

know what they're talking about."

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