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Buddhist Leadership Initiative brings solidarity, support and optimism to people affected by HIV in Cambodia

UNICEF Cambodia/2011

By Eamonn Casey

KAMPONG SPEU, June 2011 - Social stigma is a bitter pill to swallow when you are striving to endure illness, hardship and personal grief. But respect, understanding, solidarity and peer support can bring a vital measure of spiritual healing.

Mother-of-four Sin Thary, from Kampong Speu province in Cambodia, has faced bereavement, poverty and community discrimination since she and her late husband were diagnosed with HIV. Life is still difficult, as Thary raises four boys alone, having lost her husband and a baby to illnesses stemming from AIDS related illnesses. Yet Thary is gaining strength, support and courage from outreach sessions provided by the Buddhist Leadership Initiative.

Since 2002, that initiative has been reaching out to Cambodians infected and affected by HIV, offering a blend of spiritual and social solidarity, information and knowledge, small cash grants, some referral support for the most vulnerable families and children and, importantly, a chance for participants to make their voices heard and share their experiences. UNICEF HIV Specialist, Ulrike Gilbert-Nandra, says that “faith-based responses are valued by families affected by AIDS and their communities and are an important social protection approach for the most vulnerable”.

“As a family, we faced discrimination from the community once they learned we had HIV,” says Thary, who has found courage in the meditation and spiritual guidance that the monks provide in the programme. “I’ve also been able to meet people who understand what I’ve been through,” she says. “I receive a lot of support this way.”

The Buddhist Leadership Initiative, a UNICEF-supported programme run by the Ministry of Cult and Religion, aims to build self- and community acceptance of people living with HIV, supporting their involvement and engagement in Cambodian society. Discussions cover spiritual values, healthy personal behaviours, the roles of nutrition and hygiene in staying healthy, myths about transmission of HIV, and a whole lot more.

Trained monks from participating pagodas offer spiritual and small sums of cash support to vulnerable adults and children infected or affected by HIV, to their families, and to other vulnerable children in order to enhance their quality of life. Referral support is also available, allowing access to vital medical care for the most vulnerable adults and children living with HIV.

Fourteen pagodas in Kampong Speu Province, where Thary became involved, are directly engaged in the HIV-related outreach of the initiative, which is regularly reaching in this province alone some 210 people living with HIV, as well as 175 orphans and vulnerable children.

A rich tapestry of partnerships and relationships complements the initiative. From programme design at national level, through to support and oversight at provincial and district levels, the Ministry of Cults and Religion is a central player. But it also works closely with the Provincial AIDS Secretariat, the Department of Social Affairs, Veterans and Youth Rehabilitation, the Department of Health, NGOs, Commune Committees for Women and Children, and of course the monks, in a bid to create a locally relevant social partnership that delivers results.

Mr Sam Sorpheann, Director of the Provincial Department of Cults and Religion in Kampong Speu describes the simple but key step of staff members ringing the monks after every single outreach session. The monks pass on participants’ feedback and suggestions, giving an important opportunity for the voices of those involved to be heard, and their concerns addressed.

Regular meetings between Buddhist Leadership Initiative programme workers and other partners are used to address emerging issues. These can range from tackling particular health and hygiene concerns, to carefully targeting the most vulnerable people in a community; from ensuring that the rights and needs of orphans and vulnerable children are suitably addressed, to working on keeping families together where possible.

Monks from participating pagodas work with ministry staff in quarterly meetings to share their experiences of what worked well and what could be improved, helping to keep the programme real. And all of this analysis and information feeds back into how the programme works overall, and to what is covered in the targeted outreach sessions.

At one recent session for orphans and vulnerable children, attended by UNICEF child protection staff, monk Thai Channa led a discussion on religious beliefs, the importance of education, personal behaviour and a positive outlook on life, which was followed by chanting and prayer. Ministry staff then spoke about health and personal hygiene issues, and the children involved were supported with basic food packages and US$2.5 as emergency cash support to ease what is often deep poverty within this social group.

These sessions bring the community together, and the children can draw on that as a support network in time of need, Thai Channa commented afterwards. The food and cash support are also helpful, together with any knowledge the monks can pass on.

“I feel these children benefit from the money they receive, which they use to help them with school costs,” he explained. “We also focus on encouraging them to attend school, since education is very important for children.”

The children commented that these sessions helped them make friends, come together and feel supported, and that they enjoyed them. The food and cash support also helped. “I really look forward to coming to these sessions,” said one child. “I like being with the other kids, and learning from the monk.”

The Buddhist Leadership Initiative has helped ministry officials build the capacity of its staff members through coordination and learning with the different partners working on complementary issues: monks, community groups, local authorities, other government departments, UNICEF and others. Officials say this social partnership is delivering an initiative for people infected and affected by HIV that is more comprehensive, linked in with communities and, therefore, more accessible than the ministry could have managed by working alone. Participants say they are happy with outreach of the initiative and would like more frequent sessions. Speaking about the programme elements for people living with HIV, one of the participating monks, Ey Chun, conveyed the effect in these words: “The sessions help them to feel optimistic about health, and to meet other people with whom they can share experiences.”



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