battambang – Their grandparents were victims of war and genocide; their parents grew up under foreign occupation or in refugee camps along the Thai border. And now, many Cambodian children have their own tragedy to deal with—the AIDS epidemic.
They were orphaned when their parents died of AIDS, and face the danger of being infected themselves and living very short lives.
Sometimes relatives take care of them, but in most cases families cannot afford to feed more children. Families that adopt them often treat them differently than their own children, putting them to work in the fields or guarding cows, said Prang Chanthy of Impact Cambodia, an AIDS prevention program funded by USAid and managed by Family Health International.
But even when children are treated well by relatives, they have so much to deal with— the grief of losing parents and having to adapt to a new household—that some run away, she said.
As a result, the number of street children has increased throughout the country. At the present time, there is no precise figure on how many AIDS orphans are on the streets. However, it is known that as of 1998, a minimum of 30,000 children under 15 years old had lost their parents due to AIDS, said Prang Chanthy.
These children are vulnerable to being sold into prostitution, she said. This puts them at risk of HIV/AIDS infection themselves.
A number of organizations have set up programs to help AIDS orphans. In Battambang, two projects are doing what they can to help, making up for what they lack financially with a creative approach.
“One monk can feed seven children,” said Venerable Muny Vansaveth. When he started caring for abandoned children in 1992, he alone was begging for food to feed those seven kids. Now there are 27 monks at Wat Norea and 66 boys and girls, 46 of whom are AIDS orphans.
“We try so hard,” said Muny Vansaveth. “For 10 years, it was very difficult—we had no funds. But we wanted to protect them from being sold to prostitution.”
He succeeded. With the help of several organizations and private donations from people living abroad, Wat Norea Peaceful Children’s Home has cared for 358 children through the years.
This is a safe haven for children, with 30 to 40 nuns to help them in addition to the monks. Children can stay for as long as they need to.
Min Saory, 16 , was brought to the home by her aunt after her parents died seven years ago. The aunt did not explain why she was bringing her to the pagoda, and no relatives from her village of Phum Sran Kpoh in Kompong Chhnang province have come to visit Min Saory.
“My aunt is very poor, so I did not go to school in the village,” Min Saory said. At the pagoda, children go to public school half-days and attend classes at Wat Norea the rest of the time. Subjects include Thai, English and Japanese. “We want to give them a very good education,” said Muny Vansaveth. Children follow the monks’ regimen of discipline and prayers, with plenty of time for games as well.
The monks also spread AIDS education in villages and minister to AIDS victims. When villagers see monks go to the houses of people with AIDS, it makes them realize the disease is not contagious, and this helps reduce discrimination against them, said Muny Vansaveth.
Wat Norea is the only pagoda in Cambodia known to have an AIDS orphan program. Monks from other parts of the country have started coming to the pagoda to learn how to do this with little or no money, said Muny Vansaveth.
Meatho Phum Komah (Children’s Homeland) was borne out of Mao Lang’s determination not to let children down when her source of funding dried up and overnight she had to find a home for 16 kids.
This was in 1996. Five years and countless letters later, Children’s Homeland has secured funding from a number of organizations. However, it remains a shoestring operation and Mao Lang is constantly in fundraising mode.
Homeland serves as a safe house for children, but a temporary one whose goal is to reunite them with their families or to find a place for them within a year if possible.
During a recent visit, Homeland had 409 children under its care—street children, AIDS orphans, kids returning after being sold to work in Thailand.
Children have to agree to discipline, to handle their share of chores and to go to school in order to live at the center; they are free to leave at any time.
Homeland workers send children back to their families only after they have been thoroughly investigated. Mao Lang refuses to let the older sister of 13-year-old Try Raksmei take her back home; she believes Try Raksmei’s sister will sell her again to the broker who took her to Thailand to work. Try Raksmei has been at the center one year.
In the case of 8-year-old Udum Veasna, Mao Lang has tried to get the child’s father to help support his illegitimate son. Udum Veasna’s mother is sick with AIDS, and her sister dropped off Udum Veasna at the center a few months ago.
Homeland also hopes to create a network of foster homes for AIDS orphans.
Mao Lang has so far paid for their care out of her budget, but she plans to develop a network of individuals who would agree to contribute approximately $20 per month to support a child. Prospective foster families would be taught the facts about AIDS, to alleviate their fears of contagion.