Shelter from the storm


When 18-year-old Sonia* became pregnant, her boyfriend abandoned her straight away. Not an uncommon occurrence around the world, perhaps, but for a dirt-poor Cambodian village girl living in remote village 40 minutes drive outside of Battambang, a possible life sentence of misery.

Worse was to come: when she visited the local hospital for pregnancy-related blood tests, the doctors told Sonia she had contracted HIV. Life was about to get a whole lot harder.

She had to tell her family but had no idea how the news would be received – especially by her much-loved mum, who had always had reservations about Sonia’s boyfriend and had often told her to stop seeing him.

Sonia told us her chat with her mother was the hardest thing she had ever had to do. Emotions boiled over on all sides – tears, anger, disappointment – and at the end of it, love.

Sonia and her mum used to leave their village each wet season and move to a fishing village up on Cambodia’s Great Lakes, harvesting fish as their only income. But life for Sonia would be hard now if she were to stay in the fishing village, not least because she needed to be close to a Health Clinic for her antiviral medication. Women in Cambodia who become pregnant and are HIV-positive start taking antiviral drugs straight away, which greatly reduces the transmission of HIV from mother to baby.

At meetings with the commune leader, relatives and friends at the Battambang village, it was decided to convert a disused shed into a place for Sonia and her child to live. Village compassion only went so far, however: there was still some stigma about HIV, and no one would share their home with Sonia.

Sonia threw herself into life in the rough, abandoned shed, working hard each day to educate her friends and relatives about the transmission of HIV.

Sonia loves to sew, and she started to mend clothing for friends and to baby-sit their kids while they were at work, receiving rice and other food in return. Her mum continued to send Sonia dried fish from the fishing village, and from time to time would also send her second-hand clothing, most of it needing Sonia’s sewing-repair skills.

Slowly, and with some pain, Sonia was allowed to be part of village life again. She once more had a voice.

Sonia’s and the baby’s living arrangements, however, did not change, and during the heavy rains and winds of the wet season the entire home with its dirt floors would be soaked through.

One day an Australian visiting the village came across Sonia and her child by chance. The Cambodian travelling with the Australian told the visitor Sonia’s story: about her hardships and the way she was overcoming them, about how the baby was fortunately not HIV positive, and of Sonia’s attempts to support her infant through working and by giving back to her village. And especially, how she wanted to make her Mum proud.

To cut a long – but ultimately happy – story short, the Australian ended up donating the funds via HOPE so that it could oversee the building of a new tin home for Sonia and her child,. There was also enough money to buy a pedal sewing-machine, so Sonia can open her own sewing business.

The house is finished, complete with raised concrete ground flooring, which means no more soaking for mum and infant during downpours. Sonia has two large pots to collect and store water, with eight solar lights now installed in this safe, secure, weatherproof house she now calls home.

HOPE are monitoring Sonia and her baby’s ongoing health care, through our social welfare team and our nurse visiting her every month.

To make a donation towards building a new home for a family in need – please visit our donations page



* Not her real name.