Supporting self-help: David Graham in Vietnam

In Vietnam, a widespread lack of awareness and education leads to discrimination against people living with HIV. Ben Nguyen and her two young children were shunned by their community when she discovered she was HIV positive. That’s why VSO volunteer David Graham is working to strengthen self-help groups that offer vital support to Ben and other people like her.

Living with prejudice

Mother of two Ben Nguyen became infected with HIV through her husband, who died nine years ago. “Luckily my children are not infected,” she explains, “but when I took my son to kindergarten the staff treated him very badly. They wouldn’t let him play with other children. He would be left to sit on a chair, apart from the rest of the pupils.”

Despite testing her son for HIV repeatedly, Ben found that staff would not believe the test result. “They thought I’d paid for it to be declared negative. I even asked the head teacher to go with us to see the test being taken, but they refused.”

This kind of discrimination is not uncommon among the HIV and AIDS community in a country where there is little public awareness of the infection. Over the past 10 years, however, self-help groups run by and for people living with HIV and AIDS have begun to emerge. Such groups are a lifeline for people like Ben, who have become isolated from their former friends and neighbours.

Positive action

Today Ben is a member of a group called Hoa Sua, which has 54 members, most of whom are women. As well as creating a supportive environment for its members, the group offers care, treatment and advice to more than 500 patients living with HIV and AIDS in the Hanoi area. Ben is Deputy Manager of Home Care, which involves visiting people who are in the advanced stages of AIDS. “I give them food, clean their wounds and wash their bodies,” she says. “I share my status with them. This helps them feel more accepted and understood. They realise they are not alone.”

To help support this growing trend for self-help, a number of VSO volunteers are working to help strengthen the groups – through assisting with funding applications, or offering technical support or training. David Graham is one such volunteer.

Offering essential support

With a background in health promotion, he’s using his skills to deliver health education and training for various groups, including Hoa Sua. Recently, Hoa Sua ran a series of HIV awareness events in areas known for high levels of stigma and discrimination. David spoke at two of the events – each of which was attended by about 200 people.

“It was really powerful,” he recalls. “When the Director of Hoa Sua Group disclosed her status, she got people from the audience to come up to the stage and shake her hand. It was the first time many of them had met somebody prepared to disclose they were HIV positive.”

David is looking to the future with enthusiasm – excited about his work with Hoa Sua and with other groups around Hanoi. The future is also looking brighter for Ben. “Discrimination has reduced since we joined the Hoa Sua Group,” she says. “Attitudes are changing. The group is helping us support each other and improve our quality of life.”

Ben Nguyen (Vietnam - HIV and AIDS)


In Vietnam, a widespread lack of awareness and education leads to discrimination against people living with HIV.


VSO volunteer David Graham brings expertise to self-help groups working to dispel myths about HIV and AIDS in the Hanoi area.


Ben Nguyen, and people like her, now have the support and the confidence to confront prejudice and build more rewarding lives.

Vietnam HIV and AIDS

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