TCS Daily

Stigma and Superstition in Asia's "Wild West"

By Promporn Pramualratana - May 28, 2004 12:00 AM

Last year, five orphaned seven-year olds could not enroll in their village school in Thailand's northeast because their caretakers at the orphanage informed the school of their HIV positive status. Enraged community leaders, teachers and parents protested en masse, fearing that their offspring may be infected.

Supatra Nacapew, Director of the Center for Aids Rights received this complaint from the orphans' caretakers as well as a great variety of other complaints from all over the country. The protesters, representing 11 villages from a community of about 8,000 persons, lacked basic knowledge on Aids.

It took a year of Unicef-sponsored community leader training for the villagers to accept the orphans. Stigma regarding HIV infected and affected children account for 30% of the center's complaints.

According to Supatra, representatives of the Association of Buddhist Monks declared that those who want to don the saffron robes must not have full blown Aids as that would taint the Buddhist religion. Tens of thousands of temples in Thailand conduct a blood test for Aids prior to accepting any man for ordination.

The Thai people have the right to complain but migrant and stateless persons living in extreme poverty on Thai soil bordering Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, Burma and China have had no access, until recently, to Aids education, prevention or treatment.

"The incredible cross border migration involves men, women and children seeking work as laborers, recyclable garbage collectors and sex workers," said Don de Gagne, Co-Chairman, Community Program Committee, XV International Aids Conference, who works for the Population & Community Development Association.

Uneducated and homeless, the massive numbers of migrant workers are exploited and, when infected with the HIV virus, have no access to treatment. "It's like the Wild West," he said. "The great number of young women, mostly 13 and14 year olds, who crossed over into Thailand are in an extremely volatile situation," de Gagne said. In Mae Sai which borders Myanmar, these young women are in great demand by Thai men who traditionally seek extra marital sex.

Although there are no official records, HIV infection rates from sex with migrant women are extremely high. The men frequently pass on the HIV virus to their wives and children. Ironically, both the men and the community often blame the wives for their infection. Traditionally home bound and loyal to their husbands, HIV infection among married Thai women is likely extremely high although there are no statistics.

Young women from Yunnan are sold by parents to Thai border town pimps and mama sans who pay a little extra for their virginity. Chinese men, especially from Hong Kong, Singapore and Malaysia, often make the short trip to Thai border towns to have sex with these "promised virgins" in the traditional belief that the experience is an elixir to prolonged youth, vitality and longevity. Continuing the tradition, some HIV infected Chinese men believe that having sex with a virgin will purge them of the virus.

De Gagne visited a 50 year old HIV infected hilltribe woman and her son in their rudimentary hut in a border town. A rice seller, the woman was in the final stages of Aids with rashes on her body. Asked if she felt uncomfortable, she said that she had a lot of moral support from other HIV infected women in her village. HIV infection is prominent in the little pockets of villages all over the northern province of Chiangrai, famed for their ivory-skinned women.

Last year, when the directors of Mae Sai Hospital (bordering Myanmar) and Chiangsaen Hospital (bordering Laos) got together with local people with Aids to seek ways to treat stateless persons, a unique program came into being.

The Cross Border ARV Program was thus founded in May 2004 by the Population & Development Association, Medecins Sans Frontiers, the Ministry of Public Health and People with HIV Network. Funded by US$150,000 from the EU and Thailand's Ministry of Public Health, this two-year program provides complete care including access to ARV, treatment for opportunistic infections, three-month follow-up, and income generating activities for 60 persons.

Asia is economically booming - as such many more people can afford to have extra marital relations and pay for sex. "The number of HIV infected persons in India and China is getting closer to African proportions. And now Aids is at the doorstep of Asia," de Gagne said.

"I hope that the whole issue of border and migrant workers will be a platform for action at the upcoming International Aids Conference in Bangkok (11-16 July) whereby [world] leaders will have to take decisions," de Gagne said.


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