Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Buddhist monks assist HIV-affected in Cambodia

UNICEF correspondent RobMcBride reports on efforts made by Buddhist monks to support families affected by HIV in Cambodia.

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At a Buddhist pagoda (temple) in the heart of rural Cambodia, a gathering designed to give spiritual support. Vulnerable families, especially those affected by HIV and AIDS are finding strength to go on.

People like Ken Chanthy and her husband, both HIV+, regularly attend meditation sessions.

Ken Chanthy: Mother
"Before these sessions, we were stressed and ashamed. We wouldn't want to see anyone and felt discriminated against. Now we are a lot more positive."

In their bedroom of their simple home are the ARV drugs that keep the disease under control.

"Apart from monks leading meditation sessions, officials from the government also about taking our ARVs exactly on time. We know our lives depend on it."

It's all part of the Buddhist Leadership Initiative, a UNICEF supported program that enlists the considerable help and resources of pagodas (temples) in this devoutly Buddhist country.

Ulrike Gilbert: UNICEF HIV Specialist
"From UNICEF's point of view, the support the monks provide to families affected by HIVis critically important because they address the spiritual needs of Buddhist people, as we as, they help to mobilize material support for families. The vast majority of these families are impoverished, live well below the poverty line."

As part of the effort, Venerable Monk Khun Khat received special training to support people living with HIV and AIDS, combining it with the central Buddhist practice of compassion and helping those in need.

Khun Khat: Monk
"Buddhism teaches that we cannot live in isolation. Even if you have difficulties or challenges, you have to live in a society."

On this day, Khun Khat is visiting a neighboring pagoda (temple) where children are meeting. They are all vulnerable in one way or another. Some are HIV+, others are from AIDS affected households, and some are struggling with other issues. All these children need support and guidance. And Khun Khat can draw upon his own experiences of losing both parents at age 12.

At the end of these sessions, material help such as school supplies and money is handed out. It supports children both materially and spiritually. The government also plays a key role in linking communities with a range of services.

Sam Sorpheann: Director, Provincial Department-Culture & Religion
"The material and the spiritual must go hand in hand. You can not just give money without education and advice. And they need to take away something inside. With education from us and spiritual guidance from the monks."

As the session ends, children leave with valuable lessons to share with their communities.

Ung Chantha: 17 years old
"I pass on what I have learned here to by brother and my sister, and also my neighbors."

Min Srey Mom: 14 years old
"And I share the information with friends."

Taking their teachings to peoples homes is a valuable part of the monks work.

Cheng Sophea has received particularly help from Khun Khat for a number of years. She was diagnosed with HIV in 2002 and her husband died of AIDS in 2003. Cheng Sophea is bringing up their son on her own. A life that is hard but just about manageable. Sophea makes a living from a small recycling business she runs in her neighborhood.

Cheng Sophea: Mother
"It is not a good job but I have no choice. And it means we can get some money to support us."

What is more, through the help of meditation, she has learned to cope with her anger.

"Before I started in the program, I used to think I was the only one suffering. And I would get angry and hit my son. But the program has helped me carry on with my life."

Seung Pahna: 11 years old
"There are still days when she does not feel good, but now she won't hit me any more."

Clearly helped as a family, these home visits have a wider impact on rural communities like this one.

"So that has been instrumental in reducing stigma and discrimination because even after 10 years since the epidemic, in Cambodia stigma and discrimination is prevailing. So monks have played a significant role to try to shift that. And I think there is 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."

The impact for these families is clear. Early exposure to his mother's life, medical tests and strict drug regimens, has made Sophea's son want to become a medical assistant.

While the future is uncertain, support for local communities from local monks is replacing ignorance and fear, giving families tools to rebuild their lives.

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