Sun, Jan 01, 2006 - Page 4 News List

Affairs deadly for Cambodia's wives


When Ou Chanta's husband discovered that he and his wife were infected with HIV, he begged her to let him shoot them both.

She refused, afraid that he would only cripple her. It was 2002, and Ou Chanta, 33, recalls that before that day she joked with him, saying "I think you have AIDS", after he began falling ill with diarrhea and headaches.

Two years later he died and she was failing, one of a startling large number of married Cambodian women infected with the virus by their husbands.

"The infection of monogamous married women is one of the real tragedies of the epidemic here," says Matthew Warner-Smith, acting country coordinator for UNAIDS.

"The real injustice is women cannot do anything about it. The power dynamics are so heavily tilted in the favor of men. [Married women] are a very difficult group to reach," he says.

While health officials have beaten back the epidemic in its most obvious places, among sex workers and their clients, it has exploded in Cambodian families, passed along from husbands to their wives.

The highest number of new HIV infections -- about 40 percent -- occur in married women, the UN and government statistics said.

An estimated 96 percent of the 57,500 Cambodian women with HIV are likely married and not engaged in sex work, according to statistics compiled at the end of 2003.

Prevention and treatment should be easy enough; to some extent Cambodia has dealt successfully with the virus for more than a decade, with workshops, better healthcare and safe sex media blitzes halting a spiraling infection rate in the country's sex industry.

But health workers and the women themselves say they are struggling to check the epidemic's spread among wives who are largely closed off to them by the taboos of a male-dominated society.

Negotiating something as basic as condom use, a key factor in reining in the epidemic amongst sex workers, is nearly impossible for most married women, who have little power over their husband's actions -- even behavior they know could be deadly to them as well.

"There is the whole association of condoms with sex workers. If either the husband or wife requests to use a condom, it would either be interpreted as a sign of infidelity or disease," says Ingrid Fitzgerald, a consultant with the UN Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM).

Many women "do not understand that they get infected from their husbands, or they do not have any power to ask their husbands to use a condom," says Pheng Pharozin of the Positive Women Sector, part of the Cambodian People Living with HIV/AIDS Network.

Housewife Soeung Samnang says she never spoke with her husband about preventing the disease.

"I didn't dare talk to my husband about condoms because I felt embarrassed ... I knew nothing about AIDS," says the 29 year-old.

Eventually she plucked up courage to ask her husband to take a test, but he repeatedly refused.

It was only when their baby daughter fell ill and both she and Soeung Samnang were diagnosed with HIV that he acknowledged he might be responsible.

"I begged him many times. He denied he had AIDS. After his daughter started getting more and more sick he finally agreed ... the three of us had another test and a week later the results came back positive," she says.

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