An Interview with Ron van Zeeland of Untenu Foundation
How did Untenu start, why Cambodia?
Seven years ago, I visited Cambodia as a tourist. I wanted to see this country I had heard so much about. When I returned to the Netherlands, I stopped working at the provincial parliament of Noord-Brabant, and explored working as a volunteer in Cambodia. I had some contacts with friends who had worked in Cambodia. They put me in touch with others who were working on HIV and LGBTI issues.
On my second visit, I had 500 euros from a friend who wanted to help LGBT people with HIV. I contacted one NGO, that was working on LGBT issues but later found out this was all run by heterosexual men ! Also volunteered for a few months with another NGO, helping with report writing. I met CPN+ – The Cambodia Network of People living with HIV (PLHIV), which was similar to my own organization in Holland. They had a project that was working with HIV positive MSM and transgender people. I felt a sense of solidarity, as an “out” gay man since 1985.
Seeing LGBT people with HIV who were poor and in bad medical condition, and having experienced this personally, needing quick help in times of medical emergencies, my friends in Holland found a “niche” for our support. So that’s how Untenu came into being. We got together in Holland to plan for ways to support PLHIV in Cambodia, and to register as a non-profit in the Netherlands.
By the way, what does “Untenu” mean? Is it an acronym?
Actually, it’s the Dutch pronunciation of the Khmer word for “rainbow”, which is spelled, “Inthanou”. The rainbow of course represents all colors, all diversities.
What have you learned about working with NGOs (and individuals) on this initiative in Cambodia?
Though the situation has changed, many so called “LGBT NGOs” in Cambodia were led by straight/heterosexual people, they wanted funding and jobs primarily. Many straight guys advocate for LGBT rights in media, but its not always clear who they represent. And also one has to vigilant, especially when it comes to handling money, we want our little contributions to be well-spent and going to the right people in need. Costs of transferring small amounts of money were relatively high. Some NGOs that I approached in the past did not have the time to deal with the relatively small amount of support we were providing. Neither did they have openly gay staff.
Things not like in Holland, there are lots of rules and paperwork to follow. I have to document everything. Cambodia, in contrast, is more informal. For example, we require identity checks for beneficiaries and validation of their medical condition as well as HIV status and ART status where this is available. However some people use different names and identities for various reasons. Another situation arises when people have to certify that money has been received; for example, money given to a monk for helping to commemorate a funeral of someone with HIV who has passed, is culturally not done, and monks themselves are not supposed to handle money! Therefore, I have to explain things like these to my board members in Holland, to try to convince them that these are just the everyday realities of life in Cambodia. Also, I have learned to be more patient, as people here often do not come, or respond to messages, on time.
Kong Bunthorn, BC coordinator and HIV activist, says of the initiative with Untenu:
This year, BC will be able to support more LGBT with HIV. We have found many cases but also could not find enough supporters, we try, to find funds through charity and through our own team here. With this partnership, BC has more support, to help the community. This allows BC to be a more responsive to the emergency support needs of HIV positive LGBT people in Cambodia….
What do you hope for in the new partnership with Bandanh Chaktomok (BC)?
BC is really a network, and is registered. BC is run and managed by Khmer gay men, and transgender (females). We worked with them in 2016, and almost all of the 13 cases of HIV Positive LGBT that we have managed to support were referred from BC focal points and partners. Unlike the other NGOs that we worked with in the past, BC suggested we come to some formal agreement, with a signed Memorandum of Agreement. I also visited Battambang to meet BC Executive committee members.
I hope BC and Untenu can have a good relationship, put it to a new level, beyond emergency aid. We are thinking about how to support skills training for HIV Positive LGBT so that they can take of themselves in the long term.
How does Untenu raise funds?
There are several ways – we have people who send money every month, a small sum, some are bigger one-off donors, others can contribute through the Untenu website, www.untenu.org and we organize events. LGBT pride celebrations, World AIDS Day, AIDS Candlelight Memorial Day, are important events in many countries. We organize an event, with Cambodian theme, show movies in Khmer, and taste Khmer food. During World AIDS Day, we had a booth and a display, and people could donate. We had drag performances and entertainment. We invent funny songs, for example about pRep or safe sex. We are all volunteers, no paid staff, and pay for our own air tickets to go to Cambodia. I try to come for a few weeks/months each year. Now, we are in contact with Khmer people and organizations in the Netherlands, many came as refugees. They are open and supportive, so we help each other.