Reflections of Death Buddhist Hospices & HIV/AIDS

HIV/AIDS Prevention & Care

CARING FOR THE FUTURE - Sangha Metta Project

For every person infected with HIV, at least half a dozen more are directly affected, among them parents, spouses and children.

The impact on parents and spouses is serious because it not only means the loss of a loved one but in many cases, the loss of the family’s main breadwinner as well. The impact on children, however, means not only the loss of a parent and breadwinner, but also the loss of the child’s emotional support and security.

Left with aged grandparents, they face the uncertainty of who will care for them if and when their grandparents pass away. Many are forced to drop out of school because their grandparents do not have the means to support them. Many more find themselves the new head of the family with the responsibility of caring not only for themselves, but also for their siblings and older relatives.

If left unattended and uncared for, uneducated and untrained, the likelihood of them drifting onto the streets, being exploited and lured into the sex industry, or becoming drug addicts or traffickers is high. Without proper care and attention, they are open to a wide variety of risks as they grow and mature.

As children are the future of the nation, the direct impact of HIV/AIDS on children has an indirect impact on the community, or the nation as a whole.

A community whose children are uneducated and unskilled is weakened. It lacks the resources and skilled manpower it needs to develop both socially and economically. Without proper development, a community or nation can fall into economic depression and face a variety of social problems.

The welfare of HIV/AIDS affected children is, therefore, everyone’s responsibility. Caring for these children is caring for the future of the nation, and our own happiness and well-being. Neglecting them is neglecting our own future and the future of the nation.

The number of AIDS infected children and children orphaned or affected by AIDS now numbers in the millions. In Thailand, it is in the hundreds of thousands. No society anywhere in the world is spared from this tragedy.

There is no one agency that can manage this problem alone. If the problem is to be solved, it requires the help of every person from every sector of society.

Concerned about the impact that AIDS is having on children, Buddhist monks and nuns all throughout Southeast Asia have responded in a variety of innovative ways.

Most every country in Southeast Asia is Buddhist and the temple is the center of the community. Community life revolves around the temple and Buddhist monks are looked upon as the spiritual leaders and moral support of the community. People put their trust in monks and turn to them for support and advice in times of crisis.

For centuries, Buddhist monks and nuns have fulfilled their obligations to ensuring the health, happiness and well being of the community by supporting community development. Although this has been done mainly through education, a large number of monks, nuns and temples have also assisted with the economic prosperity and growth of the community by establishing social welfare funds, rice banks, buffalo banks and income generation activities.

Though modernization and socio-economic development have brought many changes to the community, the role of monks has not changed. In this modern age, monks continue to be one of the community’s main pillars of support.

With the arrival of HIV/AIDS in Thailand and other Southeast Asian countries monks and nuns have adapted their traditional role to respond to the needs of the community. They see the impact that AIDS is having on the community and recognize that if the crisis is left unmanaged it will affect future development, the peace, happiness and well-being of the community as a whole.

To prevent the spread of AIDS in their community, particularly amongst the young, monks and nuns conduct HIV/AIDS awareness raising camps. During these camps, which are generally held in the temple, they educate young people on all aspects of HIV/AIDS and the socio-economic impacts. Using the life skills development and participatory learning approach, they equip the young with the skills they need to protect themselves from the dangers that come with modernization and consumerism, from temptation and from being lured into risk behavior. The monks and nuns do not work alone, but collaborate with other community leaders, the local health station and schools. In this way, activities conducted by monks and nuns become a community affair with all sectors of the community becoming involved.

As more and more infected people progress from stage one to stages two and three, become symptomatic and ill, the impact that AIDS is having on children becomes greater. With their parents unable to work and earn an income, children find themselves having to drop out of school with the burden of either caring for their sick parents and siblings, or having to find employment to supplement the family’s income. Because they are uneducated and unqualified, the work they can do is limited providing insufficient income to meet the family’s needs. Stressed by the load that they are forced to carry at such a young age, these children become easy targets of drug traffickers and pimps.

Monks and nuns have responded to this new need by diversifying the work that they are doing. Many temples have established education funds to ensure that these young children can stay in school and complete their education. Some temples conduct traditional fund raising activities on special days such at World Aids Day and Children’s Day, or at New Year. Donations are also received and distributed. Funds are generally distributed at the start of the academic year or the new semester. To meet the children’s material needs temples receive and distribute donations of textbooks, pens, erasers, and notebooks etc. as needed. Uniforms and clothing are also provided. And to ensure that children are receiving the nourishment they need, some monks and temples have set up milk banks, or collect consumer goods received as alms offerings, which they donate on home visits to families, affected by HIV/AIDS. For example, the chief monk of Doi Saket District, Chiang Mai, has established a temple cooperative to which all monks under his jurisdiction contribute from alms offerings. These contributions are donated to children in the area who are affected by AIDS, as well as other needy children.

For children who are unable to complete their education, temples arrange vocational skills training. Examples of this can be seen at Wat Sri Suphan in Muang District, Chiang Mai where children and youth are able to receive free training as silversmiths, and Wat Hua Rin in San Pa Tong District, Chiang Mai, where training in tailoring is offered for free. As a result of these programmes, many youth are now able to earn extra money to support the family in its time of need.

In the event that one or both parents die, leaving the child orphaned, temples respond by taking in young boys as temple boys or for ordination as novices. Nuns assist by caring for orphaned girls. In this way, the children are assured of a place to live, food to eat and an opportunity for education. Buddhist nun, Mae Chi Arun, who runs the Dhammajarini Foundation in Pa Sang District, Lamphun Province, is caring for a growing number of socially and economically deprived girls. Through her Foundation, young girls are able to complete their studies through the non-formal education programme, as well as receive vocational training. Without her assistance, and the help of other nuns at the Foundation, many of these young girls would be at risk of exploitation or end up in the commercial sex industry.

Activities such as those mentioned above can be found not only in Chiang Mai, but all over Thailand, as well as in other Southeast Asian countries. Many temples in Battambang, Cambodia, for example, are supporting AIDS orphans, as well as children of mine victims. Monks and temples in Vientiane, Suwannaket, Luang Pabang and Bo Kaeo Provinces, Laos have also responded to the HIV/AIDS crisis and are caring for infected and affected children in a variety of ways. The same can be seen in temples Kyang Tung, Shan State, Burma and Xeshuan Panna, China.

Through the help of these monks and nuns, many children who once faced a bleak and uncertain future are now guaranteed a good life in their community, and a future free from anxiety and the risk of exploitation and abuse. And as they grow and mature, it is the community and the nation as a whole who will be the ones who benefit.