Celebrate Solutions: Giving HIV-Positive Women in Cambodia a Fresh Start

By: Sara Pellegrom, Women Deliver

According to a report from the joint UN AIDS & UN Women Asia Regional Technical Meeting on Responding to the Feminization of AIDS, the proportion of women living with HIV increased from 38% to 52% between 1997 and 2006. Since 2006, however, this trend has turned around. In 2011, women accounted for 44% of new HIV infections and this rate is expected to continue to decrease. Discrimination against women living with HIV is prevalent, particularly in rural areas where it is compounded by a lack of eduxcation around the epidemic.

In 2010, two local Cambodian NGOs, Cambodia Health Education Media Service (CHEMS) and Cambodian HIV/Aids Education and Care (CHEC), united to create a program for low-income and HIV-positive women in rural Cambodia. The two-year project was designed to comprehensively address the issues that these women face by strengthening their economic opportunities, building their leadership skills, improving their access to health care, and improving their and their families’ knowledge about HIV/AIDS. CHEMS and CHEC applied for funding and successfully became grantees of UN Women’s Fund for Gender Equality.

The program, called “Strengthening the Economic Livelihoods Opportunities for Low-Income and HIV-Positive Women”, was implemented in 12 provinces between 2011 and 2013, in close partnership with community-based organizations, Cambodia’s Ministry of Information, the National Aids Authority, and the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, as part of its five-year national HIV strategy for 2009 to 2013.

Since its start, the program has reached over 1,300 women, providing them with livelihood skills-training, grants to start their own businesses, health counselling, and home-based care services. Self-help group meetings have also helped to increase women’s awareness of their basic rights and develop their abilities to advocate for those rights. Addressing the loss of employment, one of the most significant challenges for women living with HIV, has been crucial to the program’s success.

Mom, a 35-year-old single mother of two young girls, used to work as a producer of a local wine but was forced to stop when she found out she was HIV-positive. “I was afraid to sell goods to villagers,” she admits. Mom recalls the hostility she experiences from neighbors in her village who would take her products but refuse to pay for them, making her both afraid for her safety and ability to make a living.

In 2011, the program’s home-based care team visited Mom at her home. At the time, she had no means of supporting herself and her daughters. Soon, she signed up for training on raising pigs since her mother had an empty pig pen that she could borrow. After completing the training, Mom received a grant for USD $100. With the money, she bought two young piglets for USD $50 and saved the rest. She sold the first pig for USD $375, giving her the money to expand her business and buy four more pigs.

Finished in March 2013, the final evaluation of the program shows that women who participated in the project are generating more income and continuing and expanding their livelihood activities. Their families also have better nutrition and more food security. Additionally, Cambodia’s National AIDS Authority found that there was a significant increase in women’s capability to send their children to school after the program’s implementation.

Today, Mom says she is happy with her job and has the time to take care of her children. She is planning to use the profits from her next pig sale to build a new house so that she and her girls will not have to go to her mother’s house for shelter when it rains.

Flickr photo via Adam Jones

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