Boat Racers Paddle To Reduce Stigma of AIDS

Among all the boats racing during the Water Festival, boat No 205 stands out.

Unlike the crew of other crafts, this boat, named “Fighting HIV/AIDS,” will be manned largely by HIV-positive rowers—a group of unashamed Cambodians who say they are tired of being stigmatized.

“Win or not, it is not important. But we want to reduce discrimination and stigma among the people,” said Deat Khoeung, 39, one of the 45 HIV-infected rowers who will join in the race.

“When we have support from the family and from the people, we have some motivation to live. If not, we live but it is meaningless,” he said Tuesday.

The HIV/AIDS-awareness boat is a first at the races, said organizer Sia Phearum, an official with the UN Volunteers based at the Na­tional AIDS Authority.

He said the rowers were residents of Phnom Penh and Kandal province, members of self-help groups run by the NGO People Living with HIV/AIDS, who re­ceived support from the UN Edu­cational, Scientific and Cul­tural Or­ganization and Medicins Du Monde for the boat.

The crew also includes 15 rowers who do not have HIV, Sia Phearum said.

“They are committed and they are very happy,” he said of those pronounced fit enough to row.

NAA Deputy Director Ly Po said the inclusion of the team will en­courage mutual understanding.

“Before, people were really afraid of infection from the AIDS victims. They didn’t understand, but now people understand about the infection,” Ly Po said, adding that the NAA had provided hats and t-shirts to the racers.

“We want to encourage them to be happy and regard themselves as regular people,” he added.

Hang Maly, 45, one of 10 HIV-infected women joining the boat team, had big ambitions.

“I hope we can win, because I have enough strength,” she said.

Government officials an­nounced a ban this week on radio and television ads that promote HIV/AIDS awareness during the Water Fes­ti­val’s peak viewing hours.

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