Buddhist monks assist HIV-affected in Cambodia
By Rob McBride
PHNOM PENH, Cambodia, 8 February 2012 – Cheng Sophea dropped to the ground with her son and bowed in a gesture of respect as Khun Khat arrived at her home in Kampong Speu Province, several hours outside Phnom Penh.
Ms. Cheng was diagnosed with HIV in 2002, and a year later her husband died of an AIDS-related illness. Since then, Khun Khat, a monk, has visited regularly, offering invaluable support as the 34-year-old mother comes to terms with the challenges of living with HIV while raising her 11-year-old son, Seung Panha.
“Sophea has had a lot of challenges in her life,” said Khun Khat, “but we’re advising her, and others, how to live and how to carry on.”
His assistance is part of the Buddhist Leadership Initiative (BLI), a UNICEF-supported programme that enlists the help and resources of pagodas – which wield considerable influence in this devoutly Buddhist country – to support adults and children living with or affected by HIV.
Meeting spiritual and material needs with compassion
Venerable Monk Khun Khat has received special training to support people living with HIV, combining it with the central Buddhist practice of compassion and helping those in need.
“Buddhism teaches that we can’t live in isolation,” explained Khun Khat. “Even if you have difficulties or challenges, you have to live in the society.”
Launched by the Ministry of Cult and Religion in 2004 with UNICEF support, BLI is now active in more than half the provinces in Cambodia, a country severely challenged by the spread of HIV. An estimated 75,131 people in the country are currently living with HIV.
Trained monks offer group meditation and home visits to families and children affected by the disease, and to other vulnerable children as well. The BLI also provides small amounts of money to children to help their impoverished families cover basic needs, including education and health care.
The monks are helping “address the spiritual needs of a Buddhist people as well as mobilizing material support for affected families,” said Ulrike Gilbert, a UNICEF HIV Specialist “The vast majority of these families are impoverished and live well below the poverty line.”
‘We are a lot more positive’
At a gathering at Ang Popel Temple, monks led a session of prayer, meditation and support services for about 30 adults living with HIV or from HIV-affected families. In the warm afternoon stillness of the airy temple, participants listened intently as Government workers spoke about how to maintain their health. The session ended in a rhythmic chanting of prayers.
Ken Chanthy and her husband, Khem Sovanak, are both HIV positive and often attend such gatherings.
“Before these sessions, we were stressed and ashamed,” said Ms. Ken. “We didn’t want to see anyone and felt discriminated against. But now we are a lot more positive.”
At one such session in Tula Sala Temple, children listened to life lessons from the monks and also to practical guidance on personal hygiene. At the end of the session, bags of hygiene products, small amounts of money and school supplies were distributed.
Local government and monks also play a key role in linking communities with a range of services, including HIV testing, prevention interventions (such as condom use) and information, harm-reduction services for drug users, and treatment and care.
“The material and the spiritual must go along hand in hand,” explained Sam Sorpheann, Director of the Provincial Department of Cult and Religion. “They need to take away something that stays with them: education from us, and spiritual guidance from the monks.”
The programme – and the monks’ frequent visits with HIV-affected families – has had a profound impact on local communities.
“That has been instrumental in helping to reduce stigma and discrimination,” said Ms. Gilbert. “And I think there’s a lot of lessons we can learn in terms of broadening the scope or applying faith-based responses to other development challenges women and children face.”
“I used to think I was the only one suffering, and I would get angry,” she said. “But the programme has helped me carry on with my life.”