Buddhist monks fight stigma and raise HIV awareness in Viet Nam
By Sandra Bisin
HA NOI, Viet Nam, 20 May 2011 – As she sees her daughter return home after school, 31-year-old Nha beams with pride and love for the little girl. Thuy, 8, gives a mischievous smile to her mother and swiftly gets on her lap to cuddle.
“It is only when Thuy turned four years old that we found out she was also HIV positive,” Nha recalls. “She had always tested negative. The news came as a shock. I love my daughter so much. I felt worried and depressed. I was starting to lose hope in the future.”
Thuy is now in third grade. “I like going to school a lot”, she says. “I have friends and I am learning many things every day.” At school, nobody is aware of her HIV status.
Facing stigma, coping with HIV
“I have friends who decided to be open about the fact that their child was HIV-positive,” Nha says. “When parents of other students came to know it, they refused to let the child come back to school. This is how bad it can get. I do not want my daughter to suffer, so I just keep quiet”.
Thuy and Nha undergo regular health check-ups at the nearby hospital. Every month, Thuy, Nha and her second husband, Anh, receive free anti-retroviral treatment. Nha’s first husband died of AIDS in 2002.
“He was working in construction and travelling a lot. He probably contracted the disease through unsafe sex with a sex worker,” Nha says. Around that time, she found out about her own HIV status.
“I cried a lot when the doctor told me I was HIV-positive. It’s a long time ago now, but I will remember it forever,” Nha says. “I did not know what the disease was about, so the doctor explained what it meant. I felt desperate.”
Hope and spiritual support
A few years ago, friends of Nha introduced her to the Phap Van pagoda, where she met Monk Huan and his team of monks and volunteers providing support and care to HIV-affected children and families.
“They not only gave me food, they also gave me tremendous emotional and psychological support,” she says. “I was also able to meet with people who had a similar story. I realized I was not alone. It really helped move forward. I have also learnt how to communicate with my community and protect my family.”
At the pagoda, Monk Huan organizes Buddhist teaching sessions twice a week. “Through these sessions,” he says, “we aim to reduce stigma around HIV and we share information on HIV: how it is transmitted, how to protect oneself. Over 2,000 children and young people have attended these sessions in the past two years.”
In addition to the teaching sessions, a team of volunteers trained by the monks makes monthly visits to about 40 families in the neighbourhood.
Buddhist Leadership Initiative
Some 280,000 adults and children are living with HIV in Viet Nam. In a country with a majority Buddhist population, Buddhist monks are highly respected and influential.
The Buddhist Leadership Initiative was established by UNICEF Viet Nam in 2003. Through the initiative, UNICEF works with the government and international partners on training monks to support the special needs of people affected by HIV – and to raise awareness about HIV and AIDS in their communities.
“Buddhist monks are key elements in our strategy to decrease stigma and discrimination against families living with HIV/AIDS,” says UNICEF Viet Nam HIV and AIDS Specialist Yasuda Tadashi.
“I receive great spiritual support from the pagoda,” says Nha. “They are an inspiration for me. I have also made many friends at the pagoda. This makes me hope for a bright future, especially for my daughter. I want her dream to come true. She wants to become a teacher.”
UNICEF is providing support for implementation of the Buddhist Leadership Initiative model in seven pagodas in its two main urban centres (three in Ha Noi and four in Hô Chí Minh City). Building on the success of the initiative, the Viet Nam Fatherland Front has recently launched a programme to replicate the approach in another 40 provinces throughout the country.