Buddhist monks trained to support Cambodian families affected by HIV/AIDS

By Guy Degen, UNICEF, June 8, 2007

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia -- Throughout Cambodia, Buddhist monks are held in high regard, not only as religious leaders but for their traditional role of helping those most in need. For many Cambodians living with or affected by HIV and AIDS, Buddhist monks provide a vital link to treatment and counselling.

<< © UNICEF Cambodia/2007/Kong
UNICEF has trained thousands of monks to counsel, advise and guide families affected by HIV in Cambodia.

Approximately 170,000 adults and children are infected with HIV in Cambodia.

Through the Buddhist Leadership Initiative, UNICEF works closely with the government and international partners to train monks to support the special needs of people affected by HIV and to raise awareness of HIV/AIDS in communities.

Spiritual and social support

“Buddhist monks play an important role to decrease stigma and discrimination against families living with HIV/AIDS,” said the head of UNICEF Cambodia’s HIV/AIDS Section, Haritiana Rakotomamonjy. “Monks provide spiritual and psychological support to families and children affected by HIV/AIDS. They also help mobilize community support to make sure that those children are able to come to their monthly medical visit.”

On one recent weekday afternoon, the Venerable Ong Sary and two fellow monks from the Chbar Ampov Pagoda near Phnom Penh visited the home of Sim, a 43-year-old mother of four who is living with HIV and lost her husband to AIDS three years ago.

The young monks were welcomed warmly by Sim’s family and neighbours. Along with spiritual guidance, it was an opportunity for the monks to advise the family about HIV treatment and prevention, and the importance of proper nutrition.

Sim said she appreciates the monks’ help, particularly the rice they bring and the advice they offer her children. Fortunately, her teenage children are all HIV-negative, but having already lost one parent to AIDS they are among Cambodia’s growing number of orphans.

Centre for orphaned children

There are an estimated 570,000 orphans in Cambodia. With a rising AIDS death toll, it is projected that HIV/AIDS will account for about one in four orphans – making them one of the most vulnerable sectors of Cambodian society.

In Takeo Province, Partners in Compassion, a Buddhist-Christian care centre at the Opot Pagoda, is home to more than 60 orphaned children. A third of them are HIV-positive.

Children living at the centre are able to continue their schooling in a safe and stable environment and can learn vocational skills such as silk weaving and sewing.

The youngest child in the centre’s care is six-month-old baby Sreypo. Her mother was raped and does not want to care for her. Sreypo is still too young for a reliable HIV test, which under current conditions in the province can only be taken when she turns 18 months old. (A provincial transportation system for the blood samples of babies under 18 months of age is being developed to allow for earlier testing.)

At the frontline of AIDS awareness

With UNICEF’s support, Partners in Compassion has trained 80 local monks to raise awareness of HIV and AIDS. Their regular activities with primary school-age children aim to break down the social stigma associated with HIV/AIDS.

Five home-care teams of monks have also been trained to work directly with HIV/AIDS affected families in Takeo.

For one mother named Khin and her daughter Sreynik, 4, the home visits are vitally important. Both are living with HIV. Khin wants her daughter to have a future and greatly values the monks’ help. Along with the rice, oil and salt provided by the World Food Programme, she said, the monks provide her and Sreyknik with hospital transport costs for their HIV treatment.

“We go to the villages to conduct home visits and most people appreciate what we have done,” said the Venerable Kuv Kosal, a monk at Sophy Pagoda trained by Partners in Compassion.

Working in harmony with the Buddhist principles of self-discipline, wisdom and compassion, UNICEF and its partners are helping monks to be more than just advocates for orphans, children or families affected HIV/AIDS. They are now at the forefront of HIV awareness in Cambodia.