There’s no shortage of Khmer proverbs explaining the ideal woman, and the importance of being a virgin bride is no exception. “A fruit should not be ripe before it changes colour” is a warning to young women that they should wait to have sex until they have been wed, and although some traditional beliefs have lost their traction over time, you would be hard-pressed to find parents who didn’t still adhere to the sentiments expressed in this idiom.
Yet, it is a fact that prenuptial sex is happening more often in the Kingdom and even if it’s not being talked about, or recognised by parents, it is more important than ever that youth understand the risks involved with being sexually active and are able to avoid long-term consequences. Just last week Cambodia’s Ministry of Education warned that the country’s youth are the most at risk for HIV/AIDS and with more teenagers leaving home early and engaging in risky behaviour, there is an even greater need for action against unsafe sex.
“We do not have the right to stop a woman from exercising her rights in having sex,” said Pung Chhiv Kek, the director of LICADHO, explaining that despite the potentially severe repercussions to their health, reputation and relationships, there is no law stopping a young woman from having premarital sex.
Globalisation and a less conservative media have played a major part in altering the perspectives of Cambodian youth regarding sex, exposing them to western ideals that normalise premarital sex and inspiring discussions about what it means to be sexually active.
Em Karuna, ?marketing manager of the Korean-owned company GS E&C, said sex is a biological need in human beings, so it is hard to prevent people from seeking it out. “If teenagers understand the risk factors involved, such as HIV/AIDS, unplanned pregnancy or other sexually transmitted diseases, and learn the preventative methods to avoid these problems, it is not very risky for them to have sex,” he said.
“Biologically, it is difficult to prevent sex desire,” said Dr Ly Cheng Huy from the LCC Medical Center in an interview with Lift, explaining the futility of trying to ignore feelings that are a natural part of the human experience.
While Tong Soprach advises against premarital sex, the public health consultant advises people not to judge those who make a different choice. “We should not discriminate against people who have sex before marriage,” he said. “We should educate them about reproductive health.”
According to a report Tong Soprach compiled called “Young People Talking About Valentine’s Day in Phnom Penh in 2008”, sexually activity is, indeed, a reality for many Cambodian youth. Valentines Day has taken on particular significance in Cambodia over the past few years and it seems to encourage particularly sexualised behavior among the 16-24-year-old involved in this survey. The results of the study show that more than half of the participants in the study were willing to engage in sex on Valentine’s Day and a number of them lost their virginity during the holiday.
While such behaviour may horrify conservative Cambodians, it is a societal issue and not a legal one, according to Moeurn Sovann, 31, a lawyer and chief of Legal Aid of Cambodia, a Siem Riep-based legal rights NGO. “From the age of 15, individuals have full rights regarding their decisions about sex,” he said.
While the main opposition to premarital sex might be from the older generation of Cambodians, it is a controversial topic among youth as well. Hun Lina is a junior at the Institute of Technology and although she sees improvement in education around sexual activity, she still thinks it is unwise for youth to have sex. Although many young people are well aware of the risks associated with sex, some are still careless and are affected by the negative consequences of this behaviour, from STDs to unwanted pregnancy,” she told Lift, explaining that girls are particularly vulnerable to other outcomes including scorn from family and friends if they find out.
According to Tim Vora, executive director of Cambodia’s HIV/AIDS Coordinating Committee, Hun Lina’s concerns are called for. “The percentage of Cambodian youth using condoms is still low, so the spread of HIV/AIDS is pretty high,” he said, adding that trust between sexual partners is the main cause of carelessness. They assume that if their partner isn’t a sex worker they don’t have STDs, which isn’t necessarily true.
Premarital sex is sometimes blamed for decisions later in life such as entering into prostitution, depression or even suicide, but these claims are difficult to substantiate given the wide range of experiences that contribute to these life choices. However, it is not too much to say that premarital sex is potentially damaging to the psychological and material situation of young women in the Kingdom.
While the results of premarital sex are unpredictable, there are a handful of organisations established to help youth deal with problems that arise, or avoid them in the first place.
Chea Sundaneth said her centre had worked hard to advocate good reproductive health practices among youth through a series of films and TV shows as part of the “No is No” campaign.
Pung Chhiv Kek said LICADHO provides consultancy for those who face challenges related to sexual experiences. “We encourage them to stand up and live a better life,” she said, referring to women who have been negatively effected by sexual encounters or abuse. She added that if women need support or safety in their shelters, LICADHO has a partnership with NGOs to help provide vocational training and psychological treatment to give them a way to make money and find peace of mind.
“It is also important that parents educate their children about the consequences of premarital sex in everyday life,” Pung Chhiv Kek suggested. “Parents should not use violence, but advise the children calmly.”
Although much of society still strictly prohibits sex among youth, which in turn prevents youth from openly discussing their sexual activity for fear of harsh punishment, some teenagers are having sex.
Teaching youth about safe sex, whether they are having it or not, is the only way to limit the danger and damage cause by sexual activity. Parents can yell and scream, but until they start teaching their children about how to deal with the decision to have sex, youth who go against their parent’s advice are much more likely to pay a price for their ignorance.