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
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
"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,"
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
"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
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
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
International NGOs say more help is required.
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
The Federation will place HIV-positive people at the center
of a global campaign to fight discrimination which begins May 8.
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."