Support is the word I hear most often around the office when it comes to people living with HIV/AIDS. “Our mission is to support these people,” “We support them by providing transportation and resources,” “We support people with HIV/AIDS and their families financially, physically, and mentally.” I think you get the point. But what does that exactly mean? What is the manifestation of this mantra? I have gotten to see and help with many of the programs with my organization has implemented in hundreds of villages across Cambodia, which has indeed been an eye-opening and humbling experience. But one of my last visits to a Caritas living compound revealed some flashing lights and hidden corners in the world of HIV/AIDS efforts.
Brenna was feeling sick the morning of our departure, and the noble woman decided to forgo putting any of the immune-compromised people living with HIV/AIDS in danger in case she indeed had anything of concern (she doesn’t in case you were worried), so she stayed home to recover. That left me and my supervisor, Mr. Udom, who decided we should take a moto out to the home visit site, which turned out to be about an hour away on the slow moving city motos. We arrived at a compound, built by Caritas Cambodia, which houses people from the surrounding area who have been infected by HIV/AIDS, giving them a home in case they are unable to work. Additionally, it provides a place of work for these people, allowing them to make a living while still being close to home in case they fall ill. Within the compound, there were actually three NGOs who combined forces to tackle some of the issues. Caritas maintains the compound, Hope Cambodia provides medical assistance to the affected and family, and my organization provides transportation to and from the medical center and pharmacies on a daily basis.
Our first stop was a room where about 6 women were working at sewing machines. With fabric provided by Caritas, these women meticulously worked to cut patterns and sew together shirts and pants in order to be sold at the markets in Phnom Penh. While doing so, they happily chatted with me about how they were feeling and the ins and outs of each day living within the compound. To me, it seemed like there was every attempt to make it seem as un-sweatshop as possible, with open windows, natural light, and women moving in and out of the room. Again, the fascination about me being Cambodian but not speaking Khmer came up (at this point, I pretty much assume it will be talked about in every conversation), but laughing it off once again, I continued to inquire about their livelihood. I learned that they make $120 month sewing, which while seemingly subpar compared to our Western standards, is actually quite the sum. Given that an employee at my NGO makes somewhere around the same ballpark, this doesn’t seem like all that bad a gig, which they confirmed.
After this visit, I toured the grounds a little more. We talked to a little boy who was living with HIV and he showed me the medicines that he has to take, barely being old enough to start taking them. Mr. Udom (my supervisor) informed me that they is an attempt to try and make sure kids go to school with all the other children in order to integrate them into society and try and to reduce stigma about their disease. While it can be tougher due to their illness, he said they believe that this method is much more effective than simply creating a school for just HIV/AIDS infected kids.
Our final stop was to a couple of homes built by Caritas. Within the homes, chickens roamed around (which slightly concerned Mr. Udom) due to the fact that these women raised chickens in order to make a living. Built over three years ago, the homes still were without electricity and were beginning to fall apart . Mr. Udom said it was out of the scope of my organization’s efforts to build homes and that Caritas was in charge of maintaining the compound. While concerning, this indicated a central struggle within NGOs. Namely, one NGO cannot do everything, and so other NGOs play different roles and if one slips up, there is little that others can do whether that be because of limited funds or limited funds.
The compound showed that there was indeed a collaborative effort among NGOs working within the same sector to make a difference. Between the chatting women and providing children the resources to go to school, the endeavors seem to be at least making life easier for some people. But unfortunately, every NGO is unable to always keep up with things (especially with such large ones) and so sometimes things fall between the cracks and people suffer. Whether a large NGO or a concentrated NGO is better is a contention that is obviously up for debate, but the truth remains that there is plenty of work that can be improved upon. While each day in the field reveals new pieces to the puzzled picture that is Cambodian struggles, this particular visit highlighted both the positive efforts and the small cracks in the façade of NGO work.