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World AIDS Day 2008: Happiness is always within our reach (part II)
01 December 2008
by Phạm Thị Huệ

UNV volunteer Phạm Thị Huệ speaks at the launch of an 'empathy club' for PLWH in Hai Phong. (UNV)UNV volunteer Phạm Thị Huệ speaks at the launch of an 'empathy club' for PLWH in Hai Phong. (UNV)UNV volunteer Phạm Thị Huệ meets former President of the USA, Bill Clinton. (UNV)UNV volunteer Phạm Thị Huệ meets former President of the USA, Bill Clinton. (UNV)UNV volunteer Phạm Thị Huệ with Queen Rania of Jordan. (UNV)UNV volunteer Phạm Thị Huệ with Queen Rania of Jordan. (UNV)
Hai Phong, Viet Nam: Gradually, our life got back to normal. However, we were still locked out of and discriminated against by the community, so our campaign for acceptance was not yet at an end. It wasn’t only my husband and I who had to suffer. My son and even my parents-in-law were rejected. Whereas the small noodle shop belonging to my mother-in-law used to be crowded with customers, few people now came. Every morning I helped to open the shop and at noon, I could see that the noodle basket was still full.

I became worried that our very livelihoods were beginning to be threatened. My mother and I then decided to open a tailor shop. Very few customers, too. Only elderly people came but one of them bluntly told my mother to "make sure you don’t let your daughter-in-law touch my clothes". I was devastated to hear this and once again slipped into despair.

Time passed and we relied on each other for support. One day, Ms. Nguyen Thi Thu, the Head of Ha Ly Women’s Union came over and advised me to join the Seagull Club. That’s a meeting place for drug addicts and people who are in the same circumstances as me. I received counselling and was able to learn more information on HIV/AIDS through leaflets and brochures.

Once I knew that HIV is not a virus that can easily be contracted, I thought I needed to act so that society would understand and would not discriminate against People Living With HIV (PLWH). I decided to join the health promotion team of the Seagull Club. Both my husband and I became passionately involved with our work.

Some time after I started being a promoter and appeared in the mass media, many people like me came to my house and shared their problems, like they were friends I had known for years. It’s hard to pinpoint the exact date that I became a HIV counsellor, I just realized that after a very short time my family home had become a trusted haven where women like me could come to discuss with each other about the challenges they face in life.

Listening to their stories, I gradually came up with the idea of forming a group of PLWH under the name of Hai Phong - Red Flamboyant. Although this is a self-help group, we have very clear regulations and specific objectives: Care and provide material and spiritual support for PLWH living in difficulties; care and provide material and spiritual support to children affected by HIV/AIDS; assist in creating jobs for PLWH.

We also organize counselling activities as well as physical care for PLWH when they are sick and raise funds to help children affected by HIV/AIDS. In particular, we help with the preparing of bodies for burial when PLWH pass away.  In order to raise community awareness and reduce discrimination, we also organize a lot of talks in residential areas and schools.

The year 2004 marked an important event in my life, being honoured as one of Asia’s Heroes of the response to AIDS by Time magazine. This came as a great surprise to me. Starting from my own experiences of encountering problems, everything that I have been and am doing simply originates from my determination to act so that society would understand and be sympathetic with PLWH and their children.

Read on part III