Voices: Finding Hope
February 2006—Moni Pen is junior program officer at the Policy Project on Cambodia. She recently became a member of TREAT Asia’s Asian Community for AIDS Treatment and Advocacy (ACATA).
I got married in 2001 to a guy who was a policeman. After a while I began to have problems with some kind of STD infection and my husband was very concerned, so in 2002 he went to a private clinic for a checkup. But the result wasn’t a regular STD. The result was HIV. Later on a friend to the private clinic to get an HIV test and I discovered that I was HIV positive, too. I felt very, very shocked. I never thought I would get HIV because I knew that I had to protect myself from HIV/AIDS. But I got this from my husband. So I felt very upset and I asked why this had happened to me.
In 2003, treatment was not easily available or affordable. My husband had to buy medication from a private clinic and it was expensive, around $10 a tablet, so we could not afford it. Now I can get free ARVs, unlike my husband, who died from meningitis in 2003. At the moment my CD4 count is 262 and I don’t have any opportunistic infections so I don’t take drugs—I just go in for checkups. But I won’t be able to avoid drugs if I want to have a long life. One friend told me I should not be worried, I should just pretend I’m eating candy.
I am a young positive woman but I tell myself, do not give up, do not be hopeless. To be honest, I have faced many issues in my life. When I was five or six years old I was raped, and I also experienced domestic violence from my father’s wife. And now I have HIV. I have to be strong and I have to do something that’s very useful. I have to stand up and start changing the unjust things that happen to women and powerless people. I must do everything I can for other women in my country.
For a few years now I have been on the board of directors of the Positive Women of Hope Organization, a support group for HIV-positive women. It aims to improve the quality of life for women and children affected by HIV/AIDS in Cambodia. Most of the women in the group are widows, they have no employment, many have children, and they feel hopeless. I work with them because they give me a lot of strength and I want to help them by sharing my personal experience of living with HIV. In December 2004, I also began working on HIV/AIDS with the POLICY Project in Cambodia. My main responsibility is to build and strengthen the Cambodian Positive Network (CPN+) and Vithey Chivit, a local PLHA organization.
Within my family, I have not experienced stigma and discrimination. But I’m the one who earns the money for all the expenditures in the family and right now they are very supportive. They are concerned about my health and encourage me to access treatment and do things that will help me be happy.
Stigma in Cambodia is a problem. If I disclosed my status I would be concerned about the plight of my family and my brother and sister. If I were recognized, my sister and brother would be known for having an older sister who is HIV-positive. Their friends might not talk to them and parents might not let their children play with them. Some of my friends know about my status but some do not because if I tell them they might not talk to me any more.
Discrimination at work is hard, too. People don’t want to employ us, even community organizations don’t. They always say PLHAs aren’t capable, their education is too low, they have health issues. But it shouldn’t matter that we are living with HIV. Right now I’m trying to get people living with HIV/AIDS here involved in fighting the epidemic. Together, we can change things, and the quality of our lives will improve.