Victims of HIV/AIDS Plead For an End to Discrimination

battambang province – The winds picked up just as Ouk Thary struck her match. It took her several tries to light the small yellow candle and even then it did not stay lighted for long.

It was just one of several gaffes for Ouk Thary, 38. Moments earlier, as she tried to share her ex­periences of dealing with HIV and the discrimination she often feels, the speaker system overloaded and feedback drowned her out.

Not that it made much of a difference. Most of crowd—made up overwhelmingly of students—was not paying attention, anyway. The students played football, bought drinks or sat and gossiped in front of the grandstand. During Ouk Thary’s remarks, event organizers had to break up a crowd of teen-agers and order them to sit down and listen.

Nonetheless, organizers hailed Friday’s rally a success. The event, timed to coincide with na­tional and worldwide ceremonies for victims of HIV/AIDS and to speak out against discrimination, was the first in the province’s history.

“In general, the HIV problem in Battambang is declining and a lot more people have become aware of the situation and about discrimination,” Battambang province Health Department Director Mel Yuong said.

But success does not mean victory. For every 100 patients in Battambang hospitals, around 15 of them are victims of HIV/AIDS, Mel Young said.

And while public awareness is increasing, both HIV workers and patients say the country still has a long way to go to break the ignorance.

Ouk Thary, of Battambang town, is an increasingly typical case. Her husband, a former soldier, spent most of his time away from home, working as trainer for the NGO World Vision, she said.

He brought back HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, and gave it to Ouk Thary, who unknowingly passed it on to the couple’s son at childbirth five years ago. The boy died in 1998, she said.

Besides battling the virus, Ouk Thary has also had to battle the stigma attached to HIV/AIDS. She was a hairdresser, but clients stopped coming to her. She found herself alone.

“The neighbors wouldn’t send their children to play with mine,” Ouk Thary said. “They wouldn’t even buy vegetables and fruits from me.”

That, HIV patients say, is all too common.

As part of Friday’s commemoration, more than 600 protesters in Phnom Penh marched on the National Assembly to demand anti-discrimination laws for HIV/AIDS patients.

Legislation outlawing several forms of discrimination against HIV/AIDS victims is scheduled to be considered by parliament in the next few months.

But legislation is a smaller concern for Meas Em, 62, a second-hand clothes vendor from Bat­tam­bang town. She is more worried about feeding her two HIV-positive grandchildren.

Their mother, who died in late April, passed it along to each of the children at birth. She was infected with the the virus by her husband, who got it having sex with prostitutes, Meas Em said.

As the two children sat on their haunches and picked at the grass near the grandstand, Meas Em said the situation was desperate.

“Everyone in the family is afraid of them,” she said. “I want them to live at home with me, but my husband and I think we are getting older and we don’t have much time to support them.

“I am getting older, I will die soon. So I have to send them to the orphanage so they’ll have a better future,”  Meas Em said.

Kong Raksa, 55, said he infected his wife with HIV about seven years ago after sleeping with “cheap” prostitutes. She remains hospitalized with dysentery and  probably will not live to the end of the month, he said.

In spite of the obstacles in the path of Cambodia’s HIV/AIDS patients, the situation is improving, Ouk Thary said. Aid agencies have helped teach her neighbors about the disease. She says she feels “encouraged” to hang on a little longer, as long as people remember one thing.

“Don’t discriminate against HIV-positive people,” Ouk Thary said. “We can live together without fear.”


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