Welcome to the Lhak-Sam

Chapter Two: Positive support
Part I: Practice what you preach : Lhak-Sam – A Network of People Living with HIV

“Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring, all of which have the potential to turn a life around.” Leo Buscaglia

Felice Leonardo “Leo Buscaglia”, who said these inspiring words in one of his motivational speeches, was also known as Dr Love. The Italian author was also a professor in the Department of Special Education in the University of Southern California. Leo Buscaglia was called Dr Love for the simple reason that he acknowledged the power of love, which can make people change.

It would not have been possible for the people whose stories are narrated above, to embrace their lives without the power of love.

There were people, agencies and organisations that also understood this powerful tool to help HIV positive people in finding a purpose in life. The brave hearts did not require physical help but needed moral and emotional backing. They needed to be told that they are still loved and desired, irrespective of their positive status.

Practice what you preach : Lhak-Sam – A Network of People Living with HIV

The literal English translation of the Bhutanese word ‘Lhak-Sam’ is ‘altruism’, which the Oxford dictionary defines as—‘disinterested and selfless concern for the well being of others’.

The very meaning of the word is embedded deep behind the formation of Lhak-Sam, which is an endeavour of a group of people living with HIV. The network has got the support of Ministry of Health, Royal Government of Bhutan and a few dedicated individuals. Lhak-Sam was born in 2009 by the courage of HIV positive people who got financial and technical assistance from UNDP, UNAIDS and Civil Society Organisation Fund Facility (CSOFF).

Taking the HIV Programme to a next level, the Ministry of Health in 2009 sent four PLHIV to Bangkok on a study tour.

“The tour was an eye opener. We met many positive people who were doing lot of work for other positive persons. We brought back lot of reading material from there and for the next 14 months I read all the time. I learnt a lot about HIV and AIDS,” Lhak-Sam Executive Director, Wangda Dorji says.

A few months later, the Ministry of Health brought together 13 PLHIV in Paro district. This was the second occasion when the positive people in Bhutan met with each other.

Wangda explains the genesis behind Lhak-Sam “It not only boosted our morale but also gave us a lot of information relating to our rights. It was decided in the meeting to form a group to help each other as the government cannot reach everyone. The group aimed to be a forum where those suffering alone due to self stigmatisation or facing discrimination, would find it easy to share their concerns and would also get some help.”

“It is only the beginning of a long journey. Lhak-Sam has the opportunity to bring a real change,” says Claire Van Der Vaeren, the United Nations Resident Coordinator, in Bhutan.

Claire reiterates, “Lhak-Sam has been instrumental in pushing away the stigma and discrimination. Although even the Lhak-Sam members were apprehensive about their acceptance in society before declaring their status, but the response was positive. People are now compassionate towards PLHIV. I am stunned to see the impact although it is happening very quietly and on individual basis.”

Lhak-Sam became the tenth organisation to get registered under the CSO Act in Bhutan, in November 2010. On December 1, 2010, the organisation observed World AIDS Day with the support of Ministry of Health. For the first time families of PLHIV met each other. However, it remained a private affair. The public declaration came after a year.

A saying goes like this—“Cry and you cry alone; laugh and the world laughs with you”. One step from PLHIV and support poured in from different quarters. The seed money came from chief abbot (Jekhenpo), His Majesty the King, Her Royal Highness Ashi Kelzang Wangmo Wangchuk, some corporate houses and few good individuals. UNAIDS and UNDP gave US$ 9,000 and US$ 67,000, respectively. The organisation also got a Nu.1 million grant from CSOFF.

As a young organisation Lhak-Sam is mentored by RENEW. “We will provide them with trainings on proposal writing and report writing besides regular organisational development exercises on their own, to make them self reliant by 2013.” RENEW’s Executive Director, Chimi Wangmo says.

The capacity building of Lhak-Sam members also involve a Treatment Literacy Programme organised by Asia-Pacific Network (APN+) and peer out-reach work by Mercy Foundation of Bangkok.

As of date in 2012, Lhak-Sam has 107 members, which include 10 children as well. Five of its members (PLHIV) shared their status with the world in December 2011, after which they involved themselves in extensive advocacy in different parts of the country.

The advocacy is mostly with school students, police and armed personnel. First, Lhak-Sam seeks permission from the District Health Officer and then the target audience is invited. The advocacy starts with PLHIV sharing their lives’ experiences with the audience. Later, the audience too is encouraged to raise their queries and get their doubts clarified.

“Even though in nascent stage, the organisation has already started working as a bridge between people living with HIV and the service providers,” says Namgay Tshering, the National AIDS Control Programme Manager.

“Formation of Lhak-Sam is a step forward in our effort to achieve the landmark of ‘zero new HIV infection by 2015’. The group has a major role to play in peer education through their experience sharing. We are nurturing them as an NGO,” says Yeshey Dorji, the Assistant Resident Representative UNFPA.

Chapter 2 stories
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Chapter 1 stories
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Chapter 3