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The Stories : HIV
Malawi doesn’t often make the world news, that is because it is a peaceable rural country. Its biggest problem is the prevalence of HIV/AIDS, at 11% it is one of the highest in the world. Tearfund’s partner in Malawi aims to reduce parent to child transmission of HIV during pregnancy and birth. Women are trained to be ‘mother buddies’ to pregnant HIV positive mothers, helping them to get to the clinic and bringing them their vital antiretroviral drugs which will protect their newborn from contracting HIV at birth. In the last year 118 bicycle ambulances have been distributed to mother buddies to help them bring heavily pregnant moms to the clinic.
As World AIDS Day approaches, Tearfund and The Metro return from Cambodia where stories of human trafficking and its role in the spread of HIV are tragically commonplace. We meet one woman who escaped from sex slavery, only to be left with the legacy of HIV.
You Ra has lived in her village in Poipet province for 16 years. She was living with her mother after being widowed six years earlier and was trying to find a job to support her family when a women came and asked her to come to Thailand, offering her a job as a seamstress.
She crossed the border illegally in the evening with the woman and four other girls hidden in a truck. She was taken to a house and told that she would be staying here and washing dishes with the others. The woman trafficker left. The next evening the owner of the house said they should wear short shirts and sexy tops and underwear to serve beer to customers.
On the second evening Ra and the other girls were told that if any man says that they want to sleep with them then they were to go with them. If they refused the owner said he would beat them day and night.
And so You Ra found herself forced into prostitution.
The karaoke bar was in a big house. Dogs guarded the doors. There were more than 100 customers every night – Thai, Khmer, Burmese as well as western, light skinned men. Ra tells of how some would get drunk, some very violent. Others were more gentle. ‘If we agreed to sleep with customers, we would be ok. If the customers were not satisfied then they would try and attack us.’
She received three meals a day but got paid nothing. The owner took all the money saying that she was bought at a very expensive price. He claimed 100,000 Bhat (over US$3200). The price for sex was 1000 Bhat (about 32 dollars).
‘Women were not allowed out of the house. I tried many times to flee but couldn’t because of the dogs. I thought I would be there for the rest of my life.’ The other girls were Thai, Laos, Burmese as well as Khmer.
‘During the day we could rest but at night we had to serve the clients in the bar.’ Ra talks of the trauma of three years lexisting in this place where she would be forced to go with up to ten men every night. ‘The restaurant owner would also rape me sometimes,’ she says. ‘I thought I would die there.’
And then there was a fire in a house nearby. A distraction, a diversion and Ra saw an opportunity to flee. ‘I tried to walk the whole day. Walk and walk and keep walking to try and get back to Cambodia. I could speak Thai and could ask directions. I told people my story and plight and they showed me the way back.
While walking she met a Cambodian man that was working in the garment industry – sewing trousers. She took on that job, the job she had first thought of, and ended up getting married to this man. About eighteen months ago she got back to Cambodia and found she was pregnant.
‘I didn’t know I had HIV but my baby got very sick and so I took him to the hospital. The blood test confirmed he was HIV positive and the doctor asked if I knew. I didn’t, I was very shocked.’
Ra was then tested herself and was diagnosed HIV Positive. ‘I felt life was terrible – hell, like the karaoke bar. And HIV felt like my life is hell again and every day I am facing death. I was very angry but I don’t know how I can pay them back for this. I am unable to – like a cripple.
‘If I saw people wanting to work in Thailand I would give them advice. I said: I had that experience – I was sold to a bar so you must be careful.’
Ra says her child has fever and diahorea. Tearfund partner, the Cambodia Hope Organisation are helping her transport her baby to the nearest treatment centre in Siem Reap, over 2.5 hours’ drive away. There’s no treatment available in Poipet.
She works now – pulling a cart from the Thai market, as many migrant workers do daily. Her husband, Dam (31), cares for the children. He is a shy man and will not go outside due to stigma he faces and fears. ‘I have to work to feed all the family,’ says Ra.
She can earn up to 200 Bhat (about 6 dollars). However tensions between Cambodia and Thailand can cause trade blockades that close the border. Asked what she would tell westerners about her situation… ‘I would say to all the women – be careful. They have to take care to escape from the HIV virus. ‘The bars are the places where HIV is already there. I want to say to tourists and others – they have to keep away from bars to avoid getting infected.’
‘I don’t want my children to be ignorant and fall into trafficking.’
Esther knows there’s a risk that she might have transmitted HIV to her daughter. Alinafe has her eyes, her smile, her blood. So, why not her HIV as well?
Alinafe herself is unaware of the danger. ‘I don’t want to tell her that I have HIV,’ says Esther. ‘When I’m ill, I tell her I might not get better. But it makes her so sad.’
Thankfully, Esther did not pass the virus onto her daughter – and her prayer is that she will live long enough to see Alinafe grow up and get married. And that God will use his church to end the pandemic.
‘The church should play a role in stopping HIV,’ she says. ‘Christians should care for people and pray.’
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