Nuth Sokunthea: Teacher and advocacy leader
by Saophorn Phoeng, Linking, Learning, and Amplifier officer
Trigger warning: self-harm
Nuth Sokunthea is a teacher born and raised in Takeo province. She completed grade 7, often accompanying her father to school. Seeing her father as a teacher, she became interested in the field and volunteered to teach afterward.
Samol, her husband, was diagnosed with HIV in 2002. Upon her husband’s diagnosis, she eventually contracted the virus and has been living with it since 2012. Her husband’s symptoms began with diarrhea and continuous weight loss. Sokunthea had no idea he has HIV and initially treated it as diarrhea, but he never recovered and grew feeble. Once they were accurately diagnosed, they sold practically everything in their house to pay for the treatment. He became seriously ill and was hospitalised for a month, where he eventually also went blind in one eye.
People were terrified and misunderstood HIV and AIDS; they feared that the virus would be transmitted through sharing a meal or just by coming in contact with someone. This type of stigma creates fear, discouraging people infected by the virus from getting treatment or disclosing their status. Since the community learned of her and her husband’s illness, both of them have endured extreme discrimination from neighbors, community members, and even from their parents, relatives and in-laws. Their meals were always served on separate plates by the family.
“Kids return home in tears and are discouraged from going to school. Their peers constantly mock them as children of persons living with HIV. I wipe away the tears and always encourage them to gently tell them that HIV is not a contagious just by playing and studying together. Report to the school director if you are bullied,” Nuth Sokunthea shared.
She thought of ending her life, realising how her children are still small and have no family to care for them due to discrimination and fear. No single person encouraged them and the kids, even from her family and her husband’s family.
They decided to move to Bokeo, Rattanakiri, hoping the situation would improve. They had no place to reside and needed assistance from the school director to obtain a room to stay inside the school camps. This way, she could teach while having a place to stay. Over time, this incredible, courageous, strong woman decided to take action on their situation. She immediately began taking antiretroviral medication (ART) from a health center in Takeo province. Taking medication with the hope of continuing life for their children was encouraged by joining the ARV User Association (AUA). When they were both invited to AUA’s monthly meeting for the first time, they found other people who are also living with HIV.
It became a safe space to join this self-help group. She obtained training in laws and social protection policies concerning HIV. Sokunthea was encouraged and empowered to head the self-help group where she could assist other individuals living with HIV to be open with their status, giving them a chance to receive better healthcare services. This can also encourage them to strive to eradicate HIV discrimination. She is now a powerful advocate for those living with HIV in thier community, unafraid to speak up and always willing to lend a helping hand to those in the same situation.
Her husband also gained the courage to speak up, assist others, educate the community and push for their community’s rights. Their self-help group became an entire family who embraced and loved them.
“HIV itself cannot kill us. What kills us is when we fail to resist, refuse to recognise our condition and don’t seek assistance. Thus, be brave to seek help, speak out and cope with resistance. I am now happier and healthier, raising livestock for the family and the community’s sales for income. I am alright, and the illness has become easier to manage,” Nuth Sokunthea’s husband said.
While joining trainings, she would also counsel with a group. She motivated other women to act and speak up. She is now a strong voice for those living with HIV in her community, never too hesitant or frightened to speak up, and always willing to provide a helping hand. With unwavering determination and a deep-rooted passion for change, Sokunthea has become a strong advocate-leader, inspiring others to take charge of their destinies.
“Our group empowers one another to advocate for those living with or affected by HIV by obtaining training and assistance, even when AUA no longer offers support. Self-help groups ensure that people with HIV know their rights, receive treatment, and receive help in getting identification cards (ID-poor) from the commune. They also help keep group members informed about news and policies and stay connected.” – Nuth Sokunthea.