kamdeng commune, Takeo province – Four-year-old San Nika already understands she will not live forever. Diagnosed with HIV when she was six months old, sometimes she curses her father for giving her the fatal virus. He died of AIDS-related causes in January.
Although she has been infected for more than three years, she is still scared of the virus. When she sees a program about HIV/AIDS on television, she asks her mother to turn it off.
“She reports to me when people tell her she can’t go to school because she has AIDS,” said Sau Srey Touch, San Nika’s 26-year-old mother who also has AIDS.
HIV/AIDS cases like that of Sau Srey Touch and her daughter are becoming more common. Sau Srey Touch was infected by her husband, who thought high-class prostitutes costing $20 a night would be HIV-free. When Sau Srey Touch became pregnant with San Nika, the mother gave the virus to her daughter.
As Cambodia marks World AIDS Day today, experts warn the deadly virus is spreading to the general population, unlike other countries where only high-risk groups are affected.
About 164,000 Cambodians are infected with HIV and 16,000 have AIDS, according to a 1998 survey by the National AIDS Authority. The authority predicts 180,000 people will have HIV in 2000, while 20,000 will have AIDS.
“In the past, HIV was spread only to high-risk groups,” Mean Chhivun, secretary general of the National AIDS Authority, said Monday. “But now 2.7 percent of housewives are diagnosed with HIV/AIDS because the husbands transfer the virus to them.”
Wayne Matthysse, a medical attendant for the Catholic Office for Emergency Relief and Refugees who has been treating Sau Srey Touch and her daughter for two months, estimates the mother has nine months to live, while her daughter may have just six months. Both of them have been losing weight, coughing and having fevers.
Children in San Nika’s neighborhood in the rural Bati district of Takeo province refuse to play with her. The toddler has scabs all over her body and looks more like a boy than a girl since she asked her mother to cut her hair short because the sores on her head were bothering her. Even San Nika’s sister, 6-year-old San Nita who doesn’t have HIV, won’t play with her. “She [San Nika] just stays with me all the time,” said Sau Srey Touch, a poor homemaker. “She does like to play. When she sees a bike, she asks me to buy it, but we can’t afford it.”
It is rare for Cambodians with HIV/AIDS to speak publicly about having the virus; it’s still considered to be a taboo topic.
“But society has changed and discrimination is down, encouraging more AIDS patients to talk on the TV and radio to educate the public,” Mean Chhivun said. Sau Srey Touch said she wants to teach men to protect themselves so they don’t infect their families like her husband did.
She recently gave an interview on Bayon television and has been traveling to other parts of the country to tell people her story.
“I don’t feel ashamed,” she said. “I’m not a prostitute.”
She met her husband, Prom Bopha, when she was 16. Sau Srey Touch said although she did not want to marry her husband at the time, she grew to love him and had a daughter with him. But his constant cheating took its toll, and after three years of marriage, they got a divorce.
After one month of separation, Sau Srey Touch said her husband pleaded with her to take him back and promised he would not cheat on her again. He even shaved his head to show he was serious about his promise.
The couple had another daughter, San Nika and everything seemed OK. Then when the baby was six months old, she became ill with diarrhea and a cough. They took her to Kantha Bopha hospital in Phnom Penh. She was diagnosed with HIV.
“I was astonished and angry,” Sau Srey Touch said. “I blamed my husband and I felt pity for my child because she was so young.
“When I was a school girl, I had a dream of having a husband, children, living long and dying at an old age. I imagined I would live the life of my parents. Now everything has turned out to be opposite.”
After she got the news that she had HIV, Sau Srey Touch tore up most of her wedding pictures. She stopped living with her husband, but they still had meals together.
“It’s a sentimental feeling between a husband and wife,” she said. “When we love someone, we love them forever.”
When her husband was nearing death, she took care of him. It was in those times that she could picture what her death might be like. When her husband died, he had black spots and bumps all over his body. His face looked black.
“I felt frightened because I saw the horrible appearance of my husband and I was afraid this will happen to me and my child,” she said.
These days, Sau Srey Touch spends most of her time cleaning and sleeping. Her mother has taken over the cooking. But with 12 mouths to feed, including Sau Srey Touch’s eight brothers and sisters, the family rice paddy doesn’t provide enough to eat.
So Sau Srey Touch depends on charity for survival. Catholic Office for Emergency Relief and Refugees gives her $10 every few weeks. A few other NGOs who have heard of her story also help, but it is never enough.
Catholic Office for Emergency Relief and Refugees is helping to build an AIDS hospice in a nearby pagoda and Sau Srey Touch says she will go there with her youngest daughter to live out the rest of their lives.
“I try hard to feel strong for my children,” she said. “The happier you are, the longer you live.”
She wants her family to remember her as a good mother and a good person. But she has been teaching her oldest daughter to remember her as a sick person. She has told her daughter about AIDS and how to protect herself so she won’t have the same fate as her mother.
“I want my child to remember me as an AIDS patient,” Sau Srey Touch said. “Then when she gets older, she won’t do anything to get AIDS.”