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Living with HIV/AIDS in rural Cambodia: a daily struggle

Living with HIV/AIDS in rural Cambodia: a daily struggle

The Social Environment Agricultural Development Organisation (SEADO) is a local non-government organisation based in Banteay Meanchey province, in the northwest. Founded in 1996, the main objectives of the group are to enhance community-based activities and to promote education on HIV/AIDS and drugs in affected areas. Kong Samnang, Kong Sopeak, Sok Sarun, Huot Landy, Long Siluch, Chea Yoeurn, Koy Vanin and Put Chomreun are the original founding members of SEADO, whose donors include the Khmer HIV/AIDS NGO Alliance (KHANA), the Asian Development Bank (ADB), the European Union and Family Health International (FHI). Here, we talk to SEADO’s project manager, Yim Bun Sorn, about the history of the group and how it is working to improve the lives of those living with HIV and AIDS in Cambodia.

Banteay Meanchey

What kinds of projects has SEADO been working on?


Photo by: Jemma Galvin
Chan Ry and her baby boy are both living with AIDS.

A serious though lessening problem in Cambodia, HIV/AIDS is an illness that doesn’t discriminate and is able to reduce the lives of entire families, communities and countries to ruin. We spoke to two families who must live with the effects of the devastating illness every day.

Chan Ry, 20, lives in Se Sen village, Sereisophorn district, Ou Embel commune. Six years ago, she married 44-year-old Em Ven, a former military police officer. During his time in service, Em Ven hired countless prostitutes, karaoke girls and visited brothels regularly, which resulted in him contracting HIV/AIDS. Now, Chan Ry and the couple’s two children all carry the fatal disease.

Every month, Chan Ry and Em Ven take their children, aged 1 and 5 years old, to the Sereisophorn Referral Hospital to have check-ups and receive basic medicine. Only the 5-year-old, who has a severely bloated stomach and is so dwarfed for his age he looks closer to 2 years old, receives antiretroviral drugs. Doctors simply tell the family to take care of themselves the best they can and to keep a positive outlook on life.

“We regret our situation and feel ashamed around other people. I feel terrible for my children. They are only young and know nothing of what’s going on. They do not deserve to live with this disease. Doctors tell us not to despair or else we’ll get run down and jeopardise our health even more,” Chan Ry said.

Chan Ry’s family is jobless. They fill their days by sleeping in their run-down, insecure house. In terms of support, SEADO supplies them with salt, olive oil, fish sauce, 30 kilograms of rice per month as well as money to cover the cost of their trips to the hospital. However, it is not enough.

“We struggle to survive because we have no income,” said Chan Ry. “Our standard of living becomes worse and worse each day.”

Twenty-eight-year-old Chea Phat is in a similar situation to Chan Ry. The mother of two has been living with HIV/AIDS for six years after contracting the disease from her husband, a porter.

The family live in a tiny, thatched-roof hut that was built for them by SEADO in Se Sen village, Ou Embel commune in Sereisophorn town’s Sereisophorn district.

With a bloated face and frail limbs, Chea Phat says how, in 2004, she married her husband but failed to have an HIV/AIDS blood test.

“I am aware of the risks and causes of HIV/AIDS in Cambodia, but we are still very careless when it comes to testing,” she said. One year after the couple’s marriage, Chea Phat learned that she had HIV/AIDS after visiting a hospital while pregnant with her first daughter. The news made her seriously consider suicide.

“I didn’t want to live in this world anymore, which is why I wanted to hang myself. Cambodian people say they don’t like people like me who have AIDS,” she said softly.

Again, SEADO supplies Chea Phat and her family with basic food rations though the family still struggles to get by.

We’ve implemented five main projects and have a few new programmes lined up that will come to fruition later this year.

Can you give us a brief outline of these programs?

The Community Programme in Serei Sisophon town and Vay Check district, which is sponsored by KHANA, focusses mainly on development work to enable HIV/AIDS patients to look after their health.

It works by grouping people in these communities and appointing a leader to each group. Orphaned children whose parents have died of AIDS are included as leaders and are given bicycles to help them with their community work.

The leaders complete tasks for each group like raising awareness of HIV/AIDS, sending the members of their group to have their health checked at state-run hospitals, health centres and some private clinics, which work in cooperation with SEADO, to ensure that diseases like tuberculosis and syphilis, which are easily contracted by HIV/AIDS patients, are kept at bay.

Some members of the communities also receive antiretroviral drugs, depending on the number of T-cells in their blood. T-cells are what help the body fight infection.

We also have the Orphan Programme in Ou Chrov district. It is funded by Global Fund and looks after four communities with 270 orphans living with guardians in Ou Chrov. Again, the children are educated about HIV/AIDS, health and hygiene. They are also nurtured and encouraged to go to state schools.

Every year, SEADO supplies them with things like plates, pots, mats, blankets, pens, pencils, books, school uniforms and bags. Our organisation has also given US$40 to the poorest families so that they can establish small businesses and rebuild their run-down homes.

Also, every month we hold a Sabay, Sabay [Happy, Happy] party for these communities. We all gather together to play games, eat food and watch educational videos.

Our World Food Programme has helped over 200 families since 2003 in Ou Embel commune, Kob and Ou Beychean communes as well as in Slor Kram commune.

SEADO seeks out the most destitute of families and, in addition to providing them with healthcare and education, donates monthly supplies of rice, olive oil, salt and fish sauce, among other staples. We also cover the cost for them when they go to have check-ups at referral hospitals and clinics.

Another project we’re working on is the AIDS and Drug Education Programme. Started in 2008, it too is funded by KHANA and works within four villages in Poipet town, which is home to most of Cambodia’s drug addicts. Each of these villages has a volunteer who is an assistant to SEADO staff.

The addicts are educated about the effects drug-taking has on the body and how it increases their chances of contracting HIV/AIDS. They are then sent to health centres to be tested for the disease.

We also invite addicts of every kind to attend SEADO parties, where we play sports and sing karaoke with educational messages contained in the lyrics.

There is also a Q&A game where we give prizes to whoever can correctly answer questions relating to HIV/AIDS and drug awareness.
Finally, the My Way, My Life programme is dedicated to educating migrants who live along National Road 5 in Poipet town about HIV/AIDS and drugs.

The migrants are taxi drivers, motodop drivers, workers and porters who aim to earn a living on the Thai-Cambodian border as well as those who cross into Thailand to work.

We currently have five people working on this programme, which is funded by the ADB.

A similar programme is also produced in audio format for the radio station FM 96.5 and aired every Friday evening. Listeners can call in and ask questions about HIV/AIDS, drugs, safe migration and human trafficking.

Those programmes are all important in supporting victims of HIV/AIDS and drugs. Which has been the most successful, do you think?

They have all enjoyed much success but the most impressive has probably been the AIDS and Drug Education Programme. The victims now have much more awareness of the disease which, in turn, has reduced the HIV/AIDS death toll.

In what other areas do you think SEADO is especially successful?

Initially, HIV/AIDS victims must be brave enough to come and visit our organisation. Once they do this, we work to break down social barriers and elements of discrimination between the HIV/AIDS sufferers and the wider community. This is very important in helping victims live normal, productive lives.

Commonly, HIV/AIDS victims find it hard to make a living while many families are jobless altogether, making it hard for them to survive. Do you think the food you supply such families is, in reality, enough for them to live off?

No, I think it is an insufficient amount. However, it does serve to prevent them from starving. In order to survive, they must strive to make some money for themselves.

Even though they’re in a dire situation, we must urge them to save as much money as possible so they can buy food should a donor cease funding.

Who makes the decision as to how much food a family will receive from your organisation?

We work in unison with our donors to come up with those decisions, which we always base on our ongoing observations.

What sorts of challenges and difficulties has SEADO come up against?

There are a few. First, poverty makes many of our clients migrate, making it hard to stay in contact with them.

Second, donors can be fickle, demanding projects that are only a year or two in length for them to fund.

After this time, they pull out funding, which makes things hard. And finally, it is always a challenge finding guardians for orphaned children.

How much money has SEADO spent this year?

From September 2009 until September 2010, we expect to spend $58,535.

What have you got coming up?

We have a new project called Community Base Organisation, which will kick off very soon.

We also have plans to expand our existing operations in Banteay Meanchey into other provinces.