On the Front Lines of Global Women's Health
Vongphachanh "Khom" Temmelath lives in Sythane Tai Village, in Vientiane, the capital of Laos. Born a boy, Khom knew from an early age that she was different. Growing up, Khom had a group of friends who were also born and raised as boys but identified as girls. As they grew older and began to express their identities, their families reacted with anger, often hitting and abusing them. Early on, Khom's family was deeply embarrassed and worried that their small community would judge them.
They urged her to wear men's clothes and to act more masculine, but she insisted this was how she felt in her heart. At the age of 10, Khom lost her father. With time, Khom's family accepted her identity as a male-to-female transgender, or katoey. In high school, Khom began wearing makeup but still dressed as a man and kept her hair short.
By the time she went to college, she had grown her hair long and wore women's clothing. She became an active part of social events on campus, volunteering and organizing events. But the school authorities challenged her repeatedly. Eventually, the constant pressure from the school and the discrimination from fellow students caused her to drop out of school.
Khom says it's nearly impossible to find a job in Laos as a transgendered person. "Companies look at your picture, your long hair, and then they see that you are born male, and they toss your CV out." Unemployed, she felt alone and adrift.
Khom's health was also at risk. At 0.1 percent, HIV prevalence among the general population of Laos is relatively low, but a recent survey established the HIV prevalence among men who have sex with men, including transgendered men, to be 5.6 percent. Among that group, there is a self-reported prevalence rate of STIs at around 42 percent.
In response, PSI/Laos opened three New Friends Drop-In Centers in 2008 in the country's largest urban areas, providing a range of HIV and STI prevention education and services for an estimated 6,000 transgendered people and their partners. After being isolated for so much of her life, Khom found a sense of community through PSI. She helped with a research survey and became more and more involved in the New Friends Drop-In Center activities. Eventually, she began working as a peer educator. Now, she mentors youth who visit the drop-in center. She urges her peers to focus on their studies and to finish their degrees. She also gives them the emotional support they need in order to face the discrimination they feel at home and at school.
"Not even in my dreams did I imagine I would be able to do this kind of work," Khom says. Before working at New Friends, she had heard of HIV and STIs but did not know how important it was to keep herself healthy and to prevent these diseases. Fearing discrimination, she rarely saw a doctor and had never been tested for HIV or STIs. Now, she says, "I can protect myself and protect others."