Under a bamboo-and-leaf shelter called a ktom, several women discuss their deepest dread: AIDS.
The scourge of AIDS is very real in the village of Prek Thmey. “We didn’t know anything about AIDS before you came,” one woman tells a development worker. “We’d heard the name AIDS, but we didn’t know what it was.”
Like many villagers in Cambodia, the women are just becoming sensitized to AIDS. Stigma is widespread and those with HIV risk being shunned if their status is known.
A woman sitting next to us is HIV-positive, but she has concealed it from the others. Her husband died of AIDS a couple of years ago. Like many women, she buries her secret inside and bears it alone.
“Many women live with the reality that their husband is not faithful and so they are at risk of HIV,” says Joke van Opstal, the founder of World Relief’s Hope ministry, explaining that in Cambodia it is quite normal for married men to visit sex workers. “They live with the sorrow of their husband’s infidelity, but they keep their hurts bottled inside. There’s a lot of ‘saving face’ that goes on.”
Dutch by birth and a fluent Khmer speaker, van Opstal asks the 13 women to raise their hands if they know for sure that their husband has always been faithful to them.
Not one raises her hand.
Van Opstal asks if this is something that causes them sorrow. The women nod solemnly, agreeing together—perhaps for the first time—that their husbands’ infidelity is a source of anguish.
“Our husbands say: ‘Why not? We have a few drinks … we meet a young woman … we are just having some fun,’” one of the women says.
Another woman chimes in: “Yes … but our husbands don’t listen to us, so what do we do?”
This is a positive step toward beginning to address the problem, van Opstal says, because the women realize they must stand up for themselves and their children. Hope empowers women to protect themselves against AIDS by arming them with the facts and developing support groups like this one.
One of the husbands—37-year-old Sothiea—is listening to the conversation and speaks out: “After I learned about AIDS, I stopped living the life that I lived before … I would go to the sex workers, like most men.”
Sothiea’s wife turns to van Opstal and whispers, “I hope he’s faithful, but I don’t know for sure.”
She’s expecting the couple’s third child.
The women seem relieved to have the opportunity to talk openly about their struggles. “I know that my husband goes to the prostitutes,” confides Touk, whose husband accuses her of being jealous when she confronts him about his womanizing. “I am so used to blaming myself,” she says.
Touk feels powerless to prevent AIDS. “Sometimes, he uses a condom, but sometimes he does not,” she says. “I go to get tested (for HIV), but what else can I do?”
Finding Peace with God
Van Opstal reassures the women they are not to blame for their husbands’ unfaithfulness—and they are not powerless. She tells them, “When we are worried and our hearts are pounding, we need to go back to the One who made us … and ask God to fill us with peace.”
Then she says something quite shocking to these women.
“I’d rather have AIDS and know Jesus than be AIDS-free without Him.”
Some of the women look stunned, trying to grasp this faith connection.
Sombat, a 47-year-old mother, shares with the group how she became a Christian after attending the local cell church group. “God is answering my prayers,” she says. “I had a miscarriage and I was bleeding for two weeks. I prayed and God healed me.”
Sombat has made a rich discovery—that God, unlike man, is always faithful.
Meanwhile, Savun’s husband died of AIDS. Now she has AIDS herself. Some days, she doesn’t have the strength to stand, let alone walk.
“My family is scared of me,” she admits privately. “They’ve given up on me.”
Totally depressed, Savun lost all hope. Then a pastor and his wife knocked on her door. Savun was astonished that two healthy people would come calling on her. They invited her along to the church’s AIDS support group where Savun met other women who were victims of their husbands’ infidelity.
For Savun, something stood out—the undeniable feeling that God’s peace rested on these women.
“It was a risk for me to follow Jesus,” she says. “But the church accepted me … no one else would have done this.”
At the age of 32, Chantu has welts all over her body. AIDS has begun its assault.
When she found out she had contracted HIV from her cheating husband, Chantu went into shock. She slept for three days. She stopped eating. And, worst of all, she dreaded death.
“I cried out: ‘I am still young … I don’t want to die!’” Chantu recalls.
Someone heard her cries.
Women from a nearby church came to her home. They listened to her, encouraged her and prayed with her. The encounter changed her heart—and Chantu put her life into the hands of Jesus.
Today, 17 women living with AIDS and the fallout of marital infidelity meet at her home for prayer and support.
“I have a difficult life,” Chantu says, “but I also know that I have Jesus. And He is faithful.”
Julian Lukins is a writer with World Relief.